Silly Season Gets Serious

What the press has taken to calling “silly season” has arrived in force.

What the press has taken to calling “silly season” has arrived in force. August, usually a slow month with most newsmakers on vacation, is often dominated by a single news story that, in retrospect, does not add much substance to the national debate. That story comes and goes and, after a month or so, is usually considered a distraction from the more important issues.

Perhaps the most ignominious example of a “silly season” story was the embarrassing coverage of shark attacks in the summer of 2001. When sobriety returned to the news cycle after the 9/11 attacks, it was discovered that the total number of recorded attacks turned out to be fewer than the previous year. The media was rightfully chastened and has, to their credit, kept a vigilant eye out to make sure they are not getting drawn into the self-fulfilling, tabloid-style coverage of any single story that characterized Shark Month.

The media seems to have recently applied that lesson to the coverage of Mosque/Muslim-gate. Last weeks two driving stories were undoubtedly President Obama’s endorsement and subsequent clarification of his statements surrounding the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero and the shocking Pew Research Center poll that showed that nearly a full quarter of Americans believing that the president was himself a Muslim.

This weekend, the venerated Sunday show line-ups on the major networks found much more substance in the Pew poll than the mosque. This could perhaps be most easily explained by the inevitable fatigue of having to cover the mosque story for a full week without reprieve. However, when asked of the longer term impact of these controversies, the sentiment seemed to be that these stories are too “August” to merit further scrutiny.

In a segment entitled “Mosque Madness” (also the title of a recent New York Times column by Maureen Dowd) on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour, conservative columnist George Will believed that in a month we will recall this debate with as a “what was that about” moment. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein thinks that the natural lifecycle of this story has already expired and it is being unnaturally prolonged by politicians and media pundits alike.

The consensus seems to be that while liberals and conservatives disagree on the merits of the argument, in September this story will melt away in favor of something more relevant. At the time of this writing, the major political stories shaping up this week are Connecticut Senate Candidate Richard Blumenthal breaking his promise not to take PAC money. But if you asked a Connecticut voter, which issue would be most likely to influence them to vote – the Mosque or the nuts and bolts of a candidate’s campaign financing?

Some inside-the-beltway logic appears to be rearing its occasionally myopic head as this debate limps forward. The suggestion that these August issues will disappear tomorrow simply because people are tired of talking them is fallacious. People are tired of talking about the mosque, and not just those people paid to do it on television, but that just means that people will stop talking about it. The impact of this debate and the static positions of mosque opponents and supporters alike are set in stone. The conventional wisdom is that this debate will have no impact on November; the impact has already been made.

The mosque issue has become the non-economic issue that likely has the legs to make it to November. Progressives have an issue in the mosque debate that will drive them to the polls where they have not had a cause to rally around so far. Democrats on the left of the political spectrum have a rallying point in the defense of religious freedom; many are determined to combat what they see as the bigotry behind opposition to the mosque and the findings of the Pew poll. Reeling from the White House’s Press Secretary’s comments decrying the “professional left,” the Progressive base may still lack a reason to vote for the Democrat in November, but now they have a new and compelling reason to vote against the Republican.

Conservatives, already motivated to vote in November, now have their non-economic issue. Those 68 percent of Americans that oppose the mosque and do not consider themselves motivated by racial animus will remember this debate in the fall as they make their plans to vote. Their motivation will be to land another blow to the commentator class, if not the Washington establishment, that sees racism around every dimly lit corner of flyover country. Conventional wisdom holds that this debate will fade from public discourse and that is probably accurate, but the relevance of this debate will not fade so quickly.   

This requires a caveat; if the mosque issue is resolved in some way before the fall, the issue may fade from voter’s minds. This, however, is unlikely. The Imam spearheading plans for the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, Feisal Abdul Rauf, said on Monday that he welcomed the attention that has been devoted to the proposed center and views the debate as “a sign of success.” With the battle lines drawn, the motivating factors are there to drive this debate forward into the fall.

November is, as the saying goes, a political eternity away. New issues will surface that will dominate the public debate. Certainly, the sluggish economic recovery and the dim job-creation forecast will be the single dominant issue of the coming election. However, the belief that the Pew poll and the proposed mosque are the political equivalent of the shark attacks of ’01 is misguided.

New stories will come and go, and the heat surrounding the debate over the proposed mosque will cool, but to suggest that story is just a function of “silly season” is, well, silly.

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