Episode 118, with guests Peter Hamby, Scott Conroy and Blake Zeff, with guest host Jeff Smith

Peter Hamby, Scott Conroy and Blake Zeff are our guests this week.
With guest host: New School Professor and former Missouri Senator Jeff Smith
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: September 14, 2013 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
PoliOptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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Peter Hamby

Hi – I’m Jeff Smith, and I’m filling in for Josh this week – an action packed political week around the world, given new developments in Syria and Russia. But the action was also furious right here in New York City, where Polioptics is based, where primary voters made picks in an array of citywide and city council races. After the break, we’ll analyze those elections with Salon political editor Blake Zeff, who’s no stranger to the trench warfare that doubles as local politics here, as a former aide to both New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, as well as several other notable New York pols.


But first, we dig deep into the way that technology – Twitter in particular – has transformed media coverage of politics, with a special focus on the 2012 elections. For that we welcome CNN correspondent Peter Hamby, who recently completed the spring term as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Hamby recently published a widely-acclaimed study on the dramatic changes to the media landscape during the 2012 presidential cycle – a 95-page tome which explains how politics is covered in 140-character bursts.  Also joining us is Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics, who literally wrote the book on a political pioneer in using new media to mobilize supporters, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. It’s called Sarah From Alaska, and remains a definitive account of Palin’s rise and brutal education in the piercing glare of the national media spotlight.

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Back in late 2008, as a Missouri state senator, one of my aides suggested that I get on Twitter. “What’s Twitter?” I asked, and she explained that it would be a cool new way for me to let my constituents know what I was up to. “Sounds great,” I said, “like a neat way to tear down the walls between me and my constituents.”

“Exactly!” she exclaimed, before telling me there was absolutely no way in hell she’d let me tweet directly without filtering it all.

And this, in a nutshell, is the paradox of Twitter, and of social media and other new technological advancements in politics: While it often purports to give the public an unobscured glimpse of politicians’ unfiltered views, most politicians’ social media accounts are managed by the same type of spin doctors (albeit often younger ones) who script their every utterance. Thus the conundrum Hamby describes in his recent Harvard study: politicians may appear closer to the people than ever – with their snappy tweets, Instagrams, and personalized emails that begin “Hey” –  and yet the 2012 nominees for president were as cloistered as any in history. John McCain’s straight-talk Express, in which he regaled reporters with literal and figurative war stories that were understood by all to be off the record, were a distant memory. By 2012, some members of the press traveled inside candidate “bubbles” for days without ever being in the vicinity of the actual candidate – or even getting an on-the-record comment from a senior aide.

In our conversation this week Hamby and Conroy pull a McCain, taking us to the back of the bus, and regaling us with an inside look at life inside the bubble. The two young media stars describe the cynicism of the reporting pack and explain why they – and modern-day voters – seem to be gravitating towards less packaged, more “authentic” – or at least, packaged to seem more authentic – candidates. This helps explain the success of Republican Chris Christie in one of the nation’s bluest states – and may portend problems for a hyper-cautious 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign that Hamby suggests may be loaded with 90s-era retreads ill-suited to the snark-tastic modern media climate. Unsparing when it comes to candidates, consultants, and their own colleagues, Hamby and Conroy serve up a segment Polioptics fans won’t want to miss.

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Blake Zeff

After the break, Blake Zeff, Salon’s new politics editor and a New York political veteran, provides a healthy dose of insight into this week’s New York City municipal elections. Among other provocative statements, Zeff contends that Bill de Blasio’s virtually certain nomination as the Democratic candidate for mayor doesn’t signal the national Democratic revival that many commentators have heralded. Instead, as Zeff persuasively argues in a recent column, de Blasio’s victory is simply the continuation of a long trend in New York Democratic primaries whereby the most liberal of the plausibly electable candidates wins the nomination.

This is not, of course, to take anything away from the incredibly disciplined and effective messaging of the de Blasio campaign. It is merely a wise corrective on those who would project the views of under 300,000 voters in one of the nation’s most liberal cities onto the 300 million citizens residing outside New York City. In any case, Zeff has few peers when it comes to New York politics – he knows whose which councilman’s uncle double-crossed which district leader’s cousin and why, and what the political implications are two decades later – and he brings his intimate knowledge to Polioptics listeners across the nation this week.

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