Even a political junkie like me can admit there’s something counterintuitive about going to a place called “spin alley” to get the straight story on a serious political debate. Without a seat for a vice-presidential debate promoted like a boxing match Thursday at Centre College, it became my main event.
For the uninitiated — count myself among them until Thursday — spin alley is the room you see all of the networks and cable stations broadcasting from immediately after a debate. In this case, the spin took place on a basketball floor in Alumni Gymnasium.
U.S. Sen. John Thune or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley aren’t household names now, but today’s debate flacks are tomorrow’s presidential or vice-presidential hopefuls. Although Republican darlings like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio didn’t make the trip as many speculated they might, plenty of the best minds, mouths and executive branch-ready haircuts from each party were tapped to act as surrogates for the campaigns.
The surrogates are trailed by students carrying tall signs with the names of the surrogates printed on them. Reporters surround the men and women while they inch toward the stalls set up as temporary studios for people like Sean Hannity of Fox News and Chuck Todd of MSNBC.
I was inside the vortex of humanity I expected within minutes after the debate, although, at first, the signs make it resemble a relatively disjointed parade featuring the House subcommittee chairmen instead of floats. The actual messages coming from the surrogates are every bit as dizzying as the room’s name implies. For sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat going back and forth between Democrats and Republicans who alternately put lipstick on their guy’s foibles and bury the opponent.
I would give readers three guesses as to who David Axelrod, Obama’s political Yoda, believed won the debate, but why waste our time? Ditto for Republican strategist and Romney advisor Ed Gillespie.
While some surrogates were better than others at selling the nuances of stuff like the policies their candidate would actually try to employ and how it would impact people, neither of those seemed to come up very much. On Thursday, many questions had to do with tone and demeanor. There was a lot of hashing out whether Biden was harrumphing too much and was too much of a bully and whether Ryan stood up enough to that rude smirk monster Biden. I was largely quiet, because everyone kept taking my question.
For a local hack like me, all this was Valhalla. But is it the right place to go for a clear perspective on what just happened?
When I asked Frank Fahrenkopf, former Republican Party chairman and the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential debates, for his opinion on spin alley, while we were standing in spin alley, I had no idea I was talking to one of the men responsible for spin alley.
Fahrenkopf said it actually started in the moments after the first presidential debate of 1984 between President Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in the basement of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville. Fahrenkopf, then the party chairman, was gathered with the Reagan campaign brain trust, including Jim Baker, White House chief of staff, and advisors Ed Rollins and Lyn Nofziger.
“We watched it on television from under the floor of the venue, and it was a debate that didn’t go very well for Ronald Reagan,” Fahrenkopf said. “When it was over, Jim Baker turned the TV off. It was quiet for a second and then Jim said, ‘We won! Now go tell the press we won. So that’s when you really started to see spinners out here afterward.”
Fahrenkopf has spent 30 years working with debates and watching the way the media and campaigns have continually upped the ante. He isn’t a proponent of many aspects of how the concept has been stretched to its zany conclusion.
“Now, it has gotten to the point of ridiculousness, where you have these signs and so forth. But it’s become part of a tradition, I suppose.”
Juan Williams, a longtime reporter and columnist who works as a commentator for Fox News, was around covering the campaign when Fahrenkopf and his crew started spinning. He said it has reached the point where people even try to decipher the outcome and meaning of the debate by how quickly each side rushes their signs into the alley.
For those scoring the vice-presidential debate based on sign punctuality, it was almost too close to call. Williams said you also have to listen to what isn’t said, referencing the Republican fixation on Biden’s body language in lieu of poking holes in what he actually said.
There is also the fact that spinning the media hard with a consistent message seems to work.
“So, the stuff that goes on inside the spin room with the various surrogates does have a power and the potential to influence or shape the narrative,” said Centre government professor Benjamin Knoll. “Those first words tend to get repeated and repeated.”
There is plenty of unseemliness to the whole idea to be sure. Once you’re in the room, diametrically opposite descriptions of the same event are thrust on you by a team of professional convincers. You can feel yourself losing any purchase on the truth almost immediately.
However, it is actually somewhat fitting for the process of trying to comprehend what happens in a debate with stakes this high.
Debates are complicated and flawed like the people who participate in them. I’m thoroughly convinced a Lincoln-Douglas style debate between two saints on truth serum would end with both sides griping about the moderator and claiming the other lied on his taxes.
Glancing around the media hall during the actual debate Thursday night, it struck me what the hundreds of people charged with reporting on the debate were being asked to do.
Not unlike the candidates, you have to decipher quick answers given to complex questions, all while weighing the dynamics of the political horse race and considering whether the person’s twitchy eyebrow means they’ll cave to Beijing. As an aside, the sudden fascination with fact-checking currently sweeping the nation makes me wonder whether lie-confirming is the same thing. But I digress.
The debates and the spin machines are not ideal ways to suss out what it all means, but they are in keeping with the speechifying traditions of our country’s past. I imagine the same thing was going on a hundred years ago in a barroom somewhere only with more cigar chomping, back slapping and swearing involved.
The campaign minions and media celebrities did seem to regard my presence with the same disdain they would gum on their fine leather loafers once they discovered “who I was with.” On the whole, though, it was a meritocracy based on who can shove their recording device in someone’s face at the precise moment they fire off a question.
While I’m not the quickest draw, I must admit a sense of pride telling people I was with the hometown newspaper, a publication my father held space in for three decades. Herb Brock considered the debate one of the most special times in his career. Neither debate nor post-debate spinning jived with his bedtime, but he was there with me in spirit at each chance I had to talk briefly about politics with people like Howard Fineman or Stephen Hayes.
These kinds of zones aren’t strictly necessary. I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for there, in large part because I had little idea what to expect.
It was a fitting punctuation mark though to a week that held so much excitement for a poltico the small college and town seemed to truly spin.