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Imagine a ballot Tuesday that confronted you not with a choice between candidates named OBAMA and ROMNEY, but that looked more like this:
How much do you support the REPUBLICAN?
Pick only one.
More than that ____
For much of Election Day, that was what viewers encountered in watching Fox News' coverage. President Obama was, in the words of Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy at the outset of the day, a guy who "promised hope and change — a lot of stuff — and he didn't deliver."
Actually, it's worth reading the question Doocy posed to former Obama aide Robert Gibbs in full.
DOOCY: "Robert, a lot of people are going to go to polling places later today. They've got two names. They've got Mitt Romney, a guy who was a successful businessman, saved the Olympics, was governor, stuff like that — or Barack Obama, who a majority of Americans voted for last time. And Barack Obama, your boss, promised hope and change, a lot of stuff, and he didn't deliver. And so now, four years, later, they say, 'You know, there's been gridlock in Washington, nothing got done, I'm going to give the other guy a shot.' "
The question was all the more remarkable in that it lacked the key defining element of a question mark. His co-hosts had equally loaded exchanges — and conversely gentle ones with Gibbs' counterpart, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie.
Fox analysts and reporters rightly noted that 2012 did not inspire a captivating campaign. As David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet The Press, said, "This is not as great a night. This is not hope and change."
Yet at virtually no point did Fox News, through its journalists or especially its commentators, appear to entertain the idea that Obama may have won voters' trust on a personal level, or identified policies that voters found appealing, or notched any worthwhile accomplishments. Even the Democratic or liberal analysts were largely reduced to talking about electoral tactics and the unresolved gridlock confronting Obama in a second term. Both valid — but not the entire story on a night Obama coasted to an Electoral College victory.
After Obama won four years ago, Fox News Executive Vice President Bill Shine, who oversees its opinion programs, suggested that a Democrat in the White House would allow the network to emerge strongly as "the voice of opposition."
It clung to the role zealously Tuesday night.
Several pundits, including Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Hayes, cited Superstorm Sandy as a stroke of good fortune for the incumbent, as it allowed Obama to look presidential as he aided New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a leading Republican.
"While Gov. Romney was talking about bipartisanship," Brit Hume said, "the president gave an image to Americans on television of him practicing it. That's pretty strong medicine."
In the evening, O'Reilly said Republicans had failed to grapple with the changing demographic face of the American electorate. The U.S. was becoming more like Western Europe, he went on, as Americans wanted others to bear their every burden — turning President John F. Kennedy's famed admonition on its head. So O'Reilly was effectively ascribing Obama's victory to the desire for handouts, especially among people of color, though O'Reilly very explicitly said such indolence cut across racial lines.
Dana Perino, the former George W. Bush press secretary, noted that women favored Obama heavily, pointing to abortion as an issue raised as a scare tactic by Democrats. Left unnoted in that exchange: declarations by two Republican Senate candidates that women should not be allowed to obtain abortions even in the case of rape. Many analysts elsewhere pointed to those statements Tuesday night as both men lost, but it also infused relevance into abortion as an issue for the race.
"President Obama will win because he ran a good campaign," said political anchor Bret Baier. "He will not win because of the state of the economy."
The coverage on Fox proved largely dour, depressive, even epically denialist.
It occurred to me as I followed Tuesday night's television coverage of the election results that our networks have gotten terrific at incorporating extraordinary context in their political coverage — providing, of course, that the subject of coverage is about who gets power.
In the past four general election cycles — even given the epic group fail of election night reportage — we as viewers have become used to understanding how and why candidates win, state by state, precinct by precinct. Spoiled, even.
I feel as though we understand the conservative take of the Florida Panhandle, the Democratic list of North Virginia, the western Pennsylvania county that serves as a bellwether, better than we do ourselves.
The insight Fox provided was less about the election itself than the coming clash within the Republican Party. The fight would be over whether Mitt Romney was too moderate a choice, or had failed sufficiently to appeal to the minorities making up an increasing number of U.S. voters.
After Fox News' own "Decision Desk" declared Ohio had gone to Obama, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace announced that officials with the Romney campaign called to push back, saying the margin was too small to make such a projection. A fair thing to report. Apparently the Romney folks reached out to Fox first; correspondents on other networks reflected similar complaints a bit later.
But first, as with all suffering, the participants had to overcome denial. Late in the evening, Karl Rove returned to the air and vigorously attacked his own network's analysis — to the point where Megyn Kelly strode down the Fox News hallways to the number-crunchers running the desk to have them gamely explain on the air how they do it.
Come to think of it, she carried herself with aplomb for much of the night. Kelly noted that the guys in the room had run the magical vote screens; she shushed Wallace as she sought to direct the flow of conversation and even darted over to brush dandruff off Joe Trippi's shoulders. She owned the studio.
Yet she couldn't convince Rove.
Even as more results continued streaming in, Rove did it again. At 11:40 p.m., he was still at it — reciting county after county, "and then there are cats and dogs elsewhere that add up to another 120,000 votes." Kelly and Baier sought to provide a check but listened sagely to Rove, who is not just a chief political analyst for Fox and a columnist for its sibling newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, but also a leader of one of the major outside political committees spending tens of millions to defeat Obama and other Democrats.
Having lost the argument — not to mention his call that predicted for Romney an edge over Obama in the electoral college of about 30 Electoral College votes — Rove made clear that the president's victory carried little weight.
"He has blown the last two years — he's played small ball," Rove said around 12:40 a.m. Wednesday. "This does not bode well for the future. ... He may have won the battle but lost the war."
Dick Morris, who had confidently predicted a Romney landslide, was nowhere to be seen.
Richard Nixon was routinely depicted as a trickster who wallowed in the sewer by the late Herb Block, the famed liberal cartoonist for The Washington Post. But when Nixon won the White House in November 1968, Block showed him with a clean-shaven face. Everyone deserves a fresh start, he told colleagues.
Little such generosity emerged on Fox.
Obviously this is an age of political polarization that has been extended to, and magnified by, major media players — on the left by MSNBC and the Huffington Post, as well as Fox News, radio's Rush Limbaugh and others on the right. But media outlets that can acknowledge developments against their rooting interest secure more trust; when he was an anchor, Fox's Brit Hume was often able to find a way to register the meaning of a moment. Not so here.
And then — just seconds shy of 2 a.m. ET on Wednesday, at the conclusion of Obama's victory speech, Kelly and Baier cited the speech, with its echoes of 2004, and found just a glimmer of grace to offer the man the network had spent so many months alternatively covering and disparaging.
Baier noted: "Hard to believe, but Iowa Caucus is 1,154 days away."
And the cycle began anew.