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.

18 thoughts on “Muck and Mire

  1. I agree. The level of discourse is discouraging.

    Still…do you contend that most Americans really do want in depth, hard hitting policy specifics when they turn on MSNBC, in lieu
    of Brian Williams and Chris Matthews trading inanities? Would ratings be higher if networks started producing real journalism?

    I’m unconvinced. I think, in many ways, we get the media we deserve. I think we like the inanities. They fit quite nicely into our continuous partial attention lives, between sessions of Brittney Spears hypothesizing and x-box gaming. We like Anderson Cooper’s glassy eyes and Katie Couric’s twinkly smile. I’m not sure we’re interested, so much, in long term strategic objectives with respect to Pakistan. Or, rather, we say we’re interested, but we’d still change the channel.

  2. Of course it isn’t. Maybe I should have said “they” instead of “we.”

    I think it’s all tired and vacuous and disillusioning. I find Maureen Dowd pointless. I do want to see health care plans and foreign policy coherence. As do people who read this blog, no doubt. But I’m not sure wide swaths of the electorate share that craving. It’s kind of difficult, I think, to go from being on the edge of your seat waiting for the next “American Idol” contestant to be evicted to waxing judgmental about the intellectual seriousness of the CBS Evening News. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to enjoy fluff and also demonstrate serious political engagement, but I am saying that a nation transfixed by tabloid distraction is probably not demanding a higher level of discourse from the media establishment.

    I’m only suggesting that there is a third party to blame here, in addition to the two you named: Us.

  3. But I’m not sure wide swaths of the electorate share that craving.

    I think policy issues can be explained in ways that are interesting to a big chunk of people. And, anyway, who watches “Hardball” who isn’t into political stuff?

    I think a huge chunk of people who actually bother to vote really do care about how we might get out of Iraq, and about the expense of health care, and a lot of other issues. And I think one of the reasons so many people tune politics out is that they think it’s all a bunch of noise about stuff that has no impact on their lives. It would be good for all of us, including candidates and media, to re-connect politics to real-world problems and solutions.

    I keep thinking of Ross Perot and his budget deficit charts. Remember that? He got people worked up about the deficit. It can be done.

  4. I’m just not all that enthused about any of the major declared Dem candidates. Edwards is trying hard with the true populism but I’m just not sold on him yet.

    I just may not get excited at all about ’08 if Gore doesn’t throw his hat in the ring.

    March madness in Iran may make all that moot anyway.

  5. I consider myself very political and very interested in learning things about the candidates that will help me decide for whom I want to vote. However, I never watch Hardball, Meet the Press, etc., just as I canceled my subscription to Pravda on the Potomac in July 2004. I watch Keith Olbermann most everyday and figure I have the best information about what’s going on.

    I like Edwards and I based this on listening to many visits he made to C-Span in 2004. If Clark would enter the race, I like him, too. I like Gore; but, after seeing him last night, I believe he will not run. He seems to really enjoy his life; why destroy this enjoyment by running for President. I like Obama; but not as much as Edwards. However, I hope to get more opportunities to see him talk without hateful people trying to trap him into inane, pseudo controversies. I do not want Hillary to be the nominee; but, I would still vote for her if she did get the nomination. However, it will prove to be another vote for someone who will not win the election. I keep an open mind about the candidates and look for good things–not the bad because there is someone in the media who will bring up any thing that appears bad to them.

    Unfortunately, I agree with Mark that if Bush/Cheney start a war in Iran in March every thing is moot. Going to war with Iran will break and further destroy this country before the election.

    Isn’t there some law that any person who is a danger to the community should be put where he won’t be a danger to the community. This is what needs to be done to the Terrible Two because they are a danger to the community.

    Oh, yes, I like Kucinich and am glad he is in the mix. He does have good ideas and I like to see those ideas get out to people. He will never win in a hundred years; but, I think his running doesn’t hurt the other candidates or the campaign.

  6. Maybe we are getting all this MSM inanity about the ’08 candidates on purpose…… remember the MSM cheerleading, hyping and abetting Bushco for months before the actual war started in Iraq?

    Now the same build-up seems to be on schedule with respect to Iran. The MSM this time around cannot cheerlead and hype to a public that painfully aware of and disgusted with lies, but the MSM can still be abetting Bushco by providing a stream of ‘interesting’ noise to cover the serious business dear to the heart of the neocons.

  7. I’m not as surprised at the general level of inanity from the media as I am at the bitter Hillary hatred in the press that is being unleased, escaping like massive beer burps from surprising places…like Bob Herbert of the NY times. I realize the Times was heavily invested in Whitewater, but their coverage of Hillary is as hateful as their coverage of Guiliani is laudatory. Sad…

  8. Perhaps you’re right about big chunks of voters being interested in real solutions to real issues. In fact, you’re definitely right.

    But there’s a difference between “cares, and is able, willing, and blessed with sufficient time to parse thorough policy debate” and “cares, but is easily duped.” Or “cares, but is more than willing to accept a platitude as a stand-in for actual insight.” And certainly, it would be hard to deny our collective attraction to mind numbing, shallowness trumpeting escapism. Maybe I’m saying that we see idiotic banter on Hardball for the same reason Vin Diesel movies make a lot of money.

    I don’t know. I hope I’m wrong. I do think that this is a great theme of modern American life: that the ever quickening pace of things has steadily stripped away insight, complexity, nuance, and breathing room from our experience. We’re so filled up with that noise you talk about, so assaulted by it (think the mobile, always-on workplace…think multi-tasking), that I wonder how reasonable it is to expect the average cubicle bound suburbanite to competently engage in political discourse.

    Incidentally, I think Obama, in his best moments, speaks to this tension; he seems genuinely to understand that people who live the life of The Idealized Modern Worker (mochas, Blackberrys, meetings, action items, PowerPoint slides) sense something hollow about the experience, that they’re not quite as happy as they should be, that they feel vaguely disconnected, strained by the sheer pace of their lives. He’s addressed this explicitly (in his Call to Renewal speech, for example) and powerfully, and I think this, beyond the standard “government needs fixing” and “we need to get out of Iraq” calls, separates him and accounts for much of his appeal. People do yearn for something beyond Cokie Roberts’ dazzling insight that Hillary Clinton “needs to look less stern,” or Obama reacting to Hillary reacting to David Geffen.

    Anyway. I might have ended up making your argument. If so, good, because mine was a lot more depressing.

  9. Despite his ideological reputation, I think of Krugman as a realist, so I was a little surprised by his column this morning. He makes a big deal out of the fact that Edwards has a specific health care proposal. Most people don’t have any idea what’s wrong with the health care system, much less how to fix it, but even very sophisticated people know that the next president’s “plan” will just be a suggestion. We’re electing an executive who only has the power to propose, not a dictator. (Sorry, Dick Cheney). The kind of health care plan proposed by a candidate is some indication of how s/he thinks, but for a lot of people, it’s not much more revealing about the candidate’s pre-dispositions than appearing on late-night TV in shades playing the sax.

    Winning the presidency isn’t about issues as much as it is building coalitions of people who identify with certain groups. People want to know that the candidate they’re voting for is on their team. They don’t learn that from position papers. They learn that by observing (among other things) whom the candidate is reaching out to, where his/her support comes from, and who his/her enemies are. If Krugman thinks the media can explode that by demanding more specifics about each candidate’s energy policy, he’s dreaming.

    The only way to keep all this horse-race crap to a minimum would be to make presidential races A LOT shorter. If this cycle is any indication, there’s not much hope of that.

  10. Maybe off topic, but I just found this to be so unusual. Zogby just did a phone survey in which Clinton is still ahead of the Dem pack, but the new kid, Obama, is beating all three Repugs in a general.

    From Goddard’s Political Wire:
    A new national Zogby telephone poll finds Sen. Hillary Clinton leading the 2008 Democratic presidential race with 33% support, followed by Sen. Barack Obama at 25% and John Edwards at 12%.

    On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani gets 29% support with Sen. John McCain at 20%.

    Key general election match ups:
    Giuliani 47%, Clinton 40%
    McCain 47%, Clinton 39%
    Obama 46%, Giuliani 40%
    Obama 44%, McCain 40%
    Giuliani 46%, Edwards 40%
    McCain 47%, Edwards 38%

  11. Oops, the above was on the P. Wire, but that ‘Obama beating all three’—beating Romney too was on the Zogby link, where Clinton and Edwards also were beating Romney.

  12. Most people don’t have any idea what’s wrong with the health care system, much less how to fix it, but even very sophisticated people know that the next president’s “plan” will just be a suggestion. We’re electing an executive who only has the power to propose, not a dictator.

    That’s true, but there have times when the president and congress work together on a common agenda. It hasn’t happened for a long time, but it’s possible

    I think you’re selling people short. I think a whopping majority of working folks do understand that there’s something very wrong with the health care system and that a few tweaks are not going to fix it. I also think that most voters are intelligent enough to understand the problems and the proposals if they were explained clearly. The problem is that you never get that kind of discussion on television or radio, which is where most people get their news.

    But consider that people figured out that Bush’s Social Security proposals were a crock, even though there was little substantive discussion on television. A majority of Americans refused to buy into the Terri Schiavo hysteria, even though television and talk radio were pretty much taken over by right wingers spreading disinformation.

    If Krugman thinks the media can explode that by demanding more specifics about each candidate’s energy policy, he’s dreaming.

    I am old enough to remember when presidential campaigns were a lot more about issues and proposals than they are now. I think the past 30 years or so, in which so much emphasis is placed on the candidate’s personality, is an anomaly. I reject the idea that most voters don’t care or are too stupid to appreciate issues and policy proposals. The real question is, how to reach them with real information?

  13. Good journalism takes thought and work.
    The main street media is short on both.
    That’s why we turn to blogs.

  14. “That’s why we turn to blogs.”

    Well, okay. Maybe. But there’s a qualitative difference between,
    say, CNN and The Washington Post. We shouldn’t lump them
    together. Larry King intoning gravely about the latest development
    in the Anna Nicole Smith case is not the same as Dana Priest
    reporting on Walter Reed, or Nicolas Kristoff writing about Darfur.
    Organizations like the Post and the Times still fund and produce
    important investigative journalism that is outside the scope of the
    blogging community.

  15. “I think you’re selling people short. I think a whopping majority of working folks do understand that there’s something very wrong with the health care system and that a few tweaks are not going to fix it. I also think that most voters are intelligent enough to understand the problems and the proposals if they were explained clearly.”

    You miss my point. I wasn’t saying that the media shouldn’t push campaigns to be more substantive on the issues, or that people are too stupid to understand more issue-oriented coverage. I’m just saying that there is a certain professorial naivete in thinking that campaigns can be distilled to the issues, that people can be led into voting that way, and that a president elected on those terms will necessarily be the most effective kind. A critical question is whether the president can unite enough constituencies to get congress to work with him/her on a common agenda. In some cases, that may require articulating a set of common goals and avoiding specifics. It may also require a willingness to force one’s own core constituents to accept less than everything they want. That’s why symbolism might turn out to be far more important in evaluating how effective a president might be than examining his/her detailed policy position on health care.

  16. I’m just saying that there is a certain professorial naivete in thinking that campaigns can be distilled to the issues, that people can be led into voting that way, and that a president elected on those terms will necessarily be the most effective kind.

    *sigh* You’re making essentially the same argument I did in my recent post on Dennis Kucinich — that vision alone isn’t enough. And it isn’t. But that’s not the point. The point is that the way presidential campaigns are covered tells us next to nothing about the candidates. We get the images crafted by their campaign managers, and the news media does nothing to knock down these images to see what’s behind them.

    And I think taking a hard look at policy proposals can reveal a lot. Back in the 2000 campaign Paul Krugman literally was a voice howling in the wilderness that George Bush’s campaign promises about taxes and the budget surplus didn’t add up. Hardly anyone else noticed, and I don’t believe anyone on television or radio raised the concerns that Krugman raised. Instead, we got endless chatter about how Al Gore is dull and wooden and even a serial liar (a claim based on right-wing lies that the press easily could have knocked down if it had tried; instead, they went along with “the narrative”). George Bush, on the other hand, may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but he’s a decent guy, and wouldn’t you like to have a beer with him?

    And the fact is that Bush did go ahead with his tax cut plans. He did exactly what he promised, with a vengeance, and congress went along. But he couldn’t do the other things he promised, because the tax cuts ate up too much revenue, just as Krugman said they would.

    There were a great many, um, questionable and well-documented items in George Bush’s past that revealed he might not have been the Boy Scout he claimed to be, but the public barely heard about those. Instead, they just got the media images (George Bush is a nice guy; Gore isn’t) and news about the campaigns themselves.

    Further, I think looking at policy proposals can tell us if the candidate has a clear grasp of the issue, or if he doesn’t. I believe all of the Dem candidates (including Senator Clinton) have made noises about getting out of Iraq. Does that mean they’re all the same on the Iraq issue? What about the fact that Senator Clinton was one of the last Dems in Washington to stop supporting George Bush’s policies? Does that tell us something about her judgments? And then there’s Dennis Kucinich, who has been against the war all along. I slammed Dennis Kucinich’s plan to replaced US troops with UN troops, because this tells me Dennis Kucinich hasn’t noticed that the UN isn’t terribly good at containing and reducing violence. This tells me that Dennis Kucinich doesn’t grasp the complexities of the situation and that his knowledge of foreign affairs is about a quarter of an inch deep.

    In 2003 I set up a web page that compared policy proposals of all of the Dems chasing the nomination. Some of them had well-thought-out ideas, and some of them didn’t. I thought it was useful to check this stuff out, not so much because I expected these plans to be carried out if the guy was elected, but because it told me which candidates understood the issues. It’s a clue to where his head was, in other words. If a candidate is making stupid proposals, it’s a pretty good clue he’d be a stupid president, I’d say.

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