If your Iowa caucus drinking game included doing a shot every time a commentator used the phrase “viable establishment candidate” with a positive connotation, you aren’t reading this right now, because you are dead. Last night, the major cable news channels—CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC—were just thrilled to report the surprising and welcome victory of Marco Rubio. Yes, the man who placed third actually won, as this interpretation gives momentum to a new, exciting narrative that the networks can play out over the next week. That’s why they all get paychecks: They streamline actual events to make them just-so stories. Donald Trump was supposed to be a just-so story: Buffoon makes a splash, flames out. But he keeps messing up that narrative. And when Ted Cruz comes along and wins Iowa, it’s just as bad, because he’s a dick and nobody likes him.
Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking Rubio pulled off some sort of upset last night, just based on the amount of time the big three spent discussing him, showing footage of him, carving graven images in his honor. The Rubio beatification is not unexpected, because so much of the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses involved these media outlets being stymied by Trump’s runaway success in the polls. Almost from the beginning, Trump played the role of spoiler, and not just in the Republican presidential primaries. He also threw a wrench in the narrative of those whose job involves prognostication, because he didn’t give a shit about playing the game of letting the media set the parameters of his campaign. Nowhere was this clearer than on Thursday night last week, when he skipped the Republican debate to throw a charity fundraiser that doubled as a free hourlong commercial for himself on CNN.
Even as their network reeled in Trump-hungry viewers, CNN’s pundits couldn’t wait to declare Trump’s no-show his first big mistake, although media commentators have been trying to call out his “first big mistake” since the fall. But it was a no-brainer for Trump—his fans love spectacle, so why not provide them with just that? Still, it provided an outlet for media hand-wringing about Trump’s potential success, even though it was clear Ted Cruz had a strong ground presence in Iowa, and Busby Berkeley-style rallies are no replacement for get-out-the-vote drives (as we saw Monday night). So Trump’s second-place finish, which happened to garner the second-largest total of votes in Iowa caucus history—save for first-place Cruz—gets turned into a gleeful pile-on about Trump’s “underperforming” results.
“I expected Marco Rubio to come in third place. I didn’t expect him to come in one point behind Donald Trump,” CNN’s Carol Costello said today, with a tone that made it surprising she wasn’t popping champagne and doing a hand-jive. Commentator Jim Acosta, on CNN earlier this morning, described Trump as being “eerily quiet” since his second-place finish, because even though these pundits are eager to finally put him into the designated “sideshow carnival barker” box they built for him last year, they also hate it when he’s not making noise they can report on. Just because the assembled talking-head media can breathe a sigh of relief about the loss of a Teflon force field around the Trump campaign doesn’t mean they want him to stop dancing.
This is the agreed-upon game of the 24-hour political news cycle: In a world of internet access and social media that can tell people what’s going on more quickly than structured TV programming could possibly manage, all they have to offer is the ability to impose narratives upon events even as they’re still unfolding. This is why you’ll see the words “BREAKING NEWS” below a candidate while they’re in the middle of a speech, only to follow it with words the candidate just said. It’s why unusual poll results or a mildly surprising Iowa caucus outcome will be harnessed to a political narrative already being pushed. It’s the media’s effort to exert control over a messy democratic process that, by definition, they can’t control. The most interesting thing to watch last night wasn’t the slow trickle of caucus results, but the networks’ growing realization that they could all dust off their similar-sounding “Trump won’t be the nominee” opinions, and trot them out in near-identical fashion.
Not that they didn’t try their best to make the caucus results exciting. Sometimes, it was comical, as when MSNBC’s overhead camera panned through a gymnasium housing Democratic caucus-goers, documenting a process in which various candidates’ supporters registered their votes by standing in different sections of the room. Similarly, at one point, the camera lingered on a Republican volunteer methodically counting ballots for so long, Lawrence O’Donnell finally whispered an apology for interrupting it, “like golf announcers,” as though the sight of a man putting pieces of paper in various piles were akin to a religious ceremony—a democratic bris.
Hillary Clinton didn’t fare quite as well as Rubio in terms of coverage, even though she declared a TKO over Bernie Sanders. In a virtual dead heat, a tie typically goes to the underdog, at least when it comes to positive media attention. Of course, that was less the case on the big three, where again, an insurgent non-establishment candidate presented a double-edged sword: The networks like the boost in ratings and excitement provided by an actual race, but they don’t love not being able to set the terms of what’s happening. It’s why even MSNBC, the channel most sympathetic to the Sanders campaign, still spent most of Joe Scarborough’s show this morning explaining why Sanders’s come-from-behind showing in Iowa doesn’t really matter in the long run. (There’s no video of it on MSNBC’s site, but Andrea Mitchell’s somewhat patronizing claim that Sanders will put up “a good fight” was mostly a chance for Joe to then tee off on Bernie’s chances.)
But if there was a clear winner last night, it was “the establishment,” something that is usually said with scorn, especially on Fox News, but for now is practically a shibboleth, so excited are the pundits that someone might yet challenge Cruz and Trump—someone willing to play ball the usual way. It’s why you could flip between all three channels this morning and watch pundits argue why Jeb Bush is still a real contender, despite demonstrating all the voter appeal of an overripe banana. For all the conservative overuse of the phrase, there is a “Washington establishment,” and it includes the media. That establishment wants candidates who are eager to perform the usual routine—to become “insiders.” So Marco Rubio is going to get a lot of attention this week. If there’s anything like a general consensus on the guy, it’s that he has no real principles, unless “doing whatever it takes to get elected” is a principle. A recent New Yorker profile on Rubio called him an “opportunist,” and suggested he’ll have “difficulty defusing concern that he is becoming indebted to powerful donors,” which is a shorthand way of saying he’s happy to play the Washington inside-baseball game. At least for the time being, the media couldn’t be happier.