Trivial Campaign Pursuits
posted at 9:09 am on June 22, 2012 by Karl
Politico’s Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns wish to make a complaint on behalf of the Beltway:
There have been small-ball presidential campaigns before, but veteran strategists and observers agree this race is reaching a record degree of triviality. Nothing previously can compare with a race being fought hour by hour in 140-character Twitter increments and blink-and-you-miss-it cable segments. Not to mention an endless flood of caustic television ads.
Blame the campaign strategist, blame the operatives, blame the reporters. They know it’s a drag. And they know they’re responsible.
They would argue: We’re powerless to stop it.
The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time. Yet at most junctures when they’ve had the opportunity to go big, they’ve chosen to go small. Obama has spoken in broad strokes about his accomplishments but has not yet outlined a detailed agenda for a second term. Romney has openly declared that he will not detail his policy proposals — slashing the size of government, for example — so as to avoid giving his opponents ammunition.
However, one thing the Internet age, 24/7 news cycle is really good at doing is displaying the formation of conventional wisdom by the establishment in real time. And as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is not all that wise.
Who are the sources for this “story”? Todd Purdum (Mr. Dee Dee Myers). Dan Rather (yes, really). Richard Ben Cramer. Mark McKinnon. Charles Krauthammer. Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. Romney adviser Kevin Madden. Haley Barbour. Bob Shrum. If you are reading a political blog, you probably know most of those names and perhaps like one or two of them. But allow me to respectfully suggest that all of these people — and you — are not a representative sample of America.
Remember when Pres. Obama said the “private sector was doing fine” during a press conference? That was what Joe Biden would call a big deal in the mediasphere for a news cycle. However, a week later, most Americans either had not heard about the comment or got it wrong. A pro-Romney SuperPAC may spend millions to make sure more Americans hear that comment, but it seems unlikely that millions will be spent on the vast majority of the micro-kerfuffles that feed the obsessions of the media and political junkies.
Similarly, is it a crime that Obama and Romney are dealing in broad strokes, instead of laying out detailed policies? According to Haberman and Burns, “operatives, reporters and potential nominees envisioned the 2012 presidential campaign as a titanic clash of media-swarmed combatants with big ideas about the future.” But big ideas are not necessarily — or often — detailed policies. Would I like more detail? Sure — and I have criticized both Obama and Romney for their lack of details and the shortcomings of their proposals. So what? The voters who will decide this election are not going to pore over the differences in how Obama and Romney would reform the corporate tax code, no matter how much I wish they would.
Instead, most swing voters will base their decision on their assessment of the economy, and Obama’s relative responsibility for it. To the extent swing voters move beyond that basic assessment, they will hear that Romney wants to cut taxes on the rich (and others), while Obama wants to raise them (along with arguments over whether either approach will promote economic growth). If Romney is smart, they will hear that Romney’s general approach on taxes is to simplify individual and corporate taxes to reduce the sort of picking of winners and losers that retards economic growth, while Obama’s approach is generally to add complexity in the name of “fairness” and thereby increase rent-seeking by America’s vast array of interest groups. They will hear that Romney wants to end Medicare as we know it and that Obama is already ending Medicare as we know it (and possibly that absent some reform, Medicare as we know it will end itself). They may hear that Romney hopes to reduce overall healthcare costs by requiring future generations of retirees to continue to shop for health insurance as they do now (with premium support), while Obama hopes to control costs largely through government, in the form of an independent payment board. But they will not hear it in much more detail than that — and would not, even if the establishment media suddenly got much more serious about covering policy and much less interested in campaign hijinx than they have been in decades. However much the likes of Haberman and Burns fret about the candidates’ vagueness on, say, Afghanistan and immigration, such issues are of marginal importance to the vast majority of the electorate. Any survey of the polling data instructs us that voters care about the economy and jobs, the budget, healthcare, and not much else (even if some issues are really important to small slices of the electorate).
Indeed, the swingiest of swing voters are almost by definition the least interested in politics, ideology or policy. If the Information Age matters in this regard, it is because the explosion of media choices offer the apolitical more options to avoid the political sphere. And if you believe the critique offered by Haberman, Burns, their colleagues and sources, who could blame them?
Unlike Burns and his bosses at Politico, I do not believe this is mostly about voters being stupid or irrational. Rather, it reflects a calculation about the importance of politics in their lives (the Greeks really have to pay attention to politics; Americans do not… yet). It reflects that many Americans feel alienated from a system that seems rigged in favor of a ruling class that enriches itself at the expense of the general welfare. It reflects that many Americans understand that there is always a gap — usually a significant one — between what candidates say in campaigns and the policies that ultimately emerge from a constitutional system based on checks and balances.
The establishment media needs to learn to stop worrying and learn to love writing for the narrow demographic of political junkies like you and me. Most of the time, the media is not safeguarding the republic so much as they are serving a market. The fact that the media is writing small stories will not stop voters from making big decisions.