Muck and Mire

Some people don’t learn. After suffering six years of an incompetent and corrupt administration, the nation is about to plunge into another content-free, all-smears-all-the-time presidential election campaign cycle.

I blame two parties: The candidates and the news media.

Paul Krugman writes that we know next to nothing about the Democratic candidates’ stands on several major issues (he promises to call out the Republicans in a later column).

First, what do they propose doing about the health care crisis? All the leading Democratic candidates say they’re for universal care, but only John Edwards has come out with a specific proposal. The others have offered only vague generalities — wonderfully uplifting generalities, in Mr. Obama’s case — with no real substance.

Second, what do they propose doing about the budget deficit? There’s a serious debate within the Democratic Party between deficit hawks, who point out how well the economy did in the Clinton years, and those who, having watched Republicans squander Bill Clinton’s hard-won surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy and a feckless war, would give other things — such as universal health care — higher priority than deficit reduction.

Mr. Edwards has come down on the anti-hawk side. But which side are Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on? I have no idea.

Third, what will candidates do about taxes? Many of the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Should they be extended, in whole or in part? And what do candidates propose doing about the alternative minimum tax, which will hit tens of millions of middle-class Americans unless something is done?

Fourth, how do the candidates propose getting America’s position in the world out of the hole the Bush administration has dug? All the Democrats seem to be more or less in favor of withdrawing from Iraq. But what do they think we should do about Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan? And what will they do if the lame-duck administration starts bombing Iran?

The “pundits” have already made me tired talking about the horse race. The newsies cover the campaigns but tell us nothing about the candidates. Example: Check out the exchange between Chris Matthews and Brian Williams in this Hardball transcript. A snip:

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: It‘s hot and it‘s early, Chris, but I harbor this theory that about a dozen Democrats, all of them already in politics, really care about this fight.

My theory goes further. As you know, I don‘t do opinions, but I read a whole lot of people‘s opinions every day on both sides. One of them I consumed today is that Hillary Clinton was so hurt at not being the cool kid at Malibu High School, in effect, that they could not believe—put another way, a funny thing happened on their way to the presumptive Democratic nomination.

Here comes Barack Obama, who, for set of reasons and a set of new beliefs about Hillary Rodham Clinton and her electability, comes in and sweeps in. And these stars, who they could always count on, fell head over hills in love with him. And this is what we are watching happen.

You combine that with the pros working for this Clinton campaign, and this is what we are looking at on page one of the tabloids.

MATTHEWS: Were you surprised at the swift reaction from Howard Wolfson for Hillary Clinton, to come out on this show last night and basically accuse the other candidate, Barack Obama, himself, of putting Geffen up to this attack on Hillary and her husband?

WILLIAMS: It was out of “The Godfather”: “Michael, do you renounce Satan?”

I am not surprised, Chris, only because the Clinton team, say what you will—and people will anyway—politically about them in the White House, in the prime of their years, what did we know about them? They were pros politically. They were good leakers. They were good attackers, and they were good defenders.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has some pros working for her. We have had some experience with them, all of us in this business have. And, so, I was not surprised. They are going to try to give rapid reaction an entirely new name.

MATTHEWS: The question is, can they set the rules? They have set a couple of rules in the last go-round here. One rule is, you can‘t attack Hillary in any fashion, or that‘s dirty politics.

Do you think they did that against—Howard Wolfson, also speaking for Hillary, her communications director, a couple of weeks ago, did it to John Edwards for a rather general comment that he made about the Congress not fighting the war, or opposing the war, and now doing it again the other day. Can Hillary say, no attacks on me, period, and get away with it?

I hadn’t noticed there was any kind of rule about not attacking Senator Clinton, but perhaps there is. Bob Herbert writes about the Obama-Clinton-Geffen flap:

Most of the analyses after last week’s dust-up over David Geffen’s comments to Maureen Dowd have focused on whether the Clintons succeeded in tarnishing the junior senator from Illinois. What I found interesting was that no one questioned whether the Clintons would be willing to get down in the muck and start flinging it around. That was a given.

When Senator Obama talks about bringing a new kind of politics to the national scene, he’s talking about something that would differ radically from the relentlessly vicious, sleazy, mendacious politics that have plagued the country throughout the Bush-Clinton years. Whether he can pull that off is an open question. But there’s no doubt the Clintons want to stop him from succeeding. …

… We’ll have to wait and see whether Senator Obama is really offering a new, more hopeful brand of national politics. But here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for a candidate making his first foray into the crucible of presidential politics:

Don’t listen to those who tell you not to fight back against the Clintons. You will not become president if you allow yourself to become their punching bag. Keep in mind the Swift-boating of John Kerry. Raising politics to a higher level does not mean leaving oneself defenseless.

Along the same lines, here’s a column in today’s Boston Globe about Hillary Clinton’s use of her first name on her campaign buttons. Please.

The fluff piece about Al Gore in yesterdays Washington Post contained more information on Gore’s actual accomplishments (that he made a documentary) than most campaign reporting contains about the candidates.