Sunday, October 24, 2004


The intellects: Personality driven

Why don't the supposed "intellects" seem to be able to tell the difference between a presidential race and the Miss America pageant?

[Part IV of IV]

Well, we're down to the final 9 days of the most important presidential election in our lifetimes, and the choice has gotten pretty focused between Kerry and Bush. So perhaps it's a bit beside the point right now to rail about the mythology surrounding presidential campaigns, since my point won't be really on the mark until summer and fall of 2008. But what the heck – it's Sunday, and sort of a reflective, "week in review" kind of day, right?

Last Sunday, the New York Times issued a beautifully-written masthead editorial endorsing Kerry, "John Kerry for President," that provided a detailed, point-by-point indictment of the Bush administration that could hardly be improved upon.

My question is this: what did the New York Times know about the presidential race on October 17, 2004 that it did not know before? On July 17, 2004, or May 17, 2004?

To be sure, the Times probably wanted to optimize the timing of its endorsement for the greatest impact while maintaining an appearance of journalistic neutrality. Yet there was nothing stopping the Times at any point since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination from making this year's stark electoral choice clear – rather than muddying the waters with a personality driven of presidential elections.

The intellects – pundits and other shapers of public opinion, both individuals and institutions like The New York Times editorial page – are certainly smart, and better informed than the rest of us, and yet their views of what is important to look for in a presidential election are fundamentally as mystified and misinformed as the know-nothingest undecided voter.

"There is no denying that this race is mainly about Mr. Bush's disastrous tenure," the Times correctly opines. That being the case, unless Kerry were either a raving demagogue or insane, then any voter wishing to express disapproval of Bush's governance has never -- since Kerry's nomination was determined -- had any choice other than to vote for Kerry.

Yet the Times pretends that they had to watch and listen to Kerry until mid-October in order for this choice to become clear:
We have been impressed with Mr. Kerry's wide knowledge and clear thinking - something that became more apparent once he was reined in by that two-minute debate light.
Give me a break! Kerry had been a Senator for over 20 years – it's not like he just emerged from the shadows like Jesse Ventura or Ross Perot. Can anyone seriously maintain that they learn what a candidate is really made of by listening to his 90 second prefabricated statements or campaign-trail sound bites?

Pundits love to complain about how the candidates don't address the issues, or fail to explain how they will pay for their programs, or, as David Brooks put it, fail to explain in a two minute debate segment, their plan to save the world. Yet all the while, the news organizations who employ these pundits boil down the messages into sound bites, fixate on irrelevant verbal gaffes (Cheney's lesbian daughter!), and analyze, not what the candidate's policy program is, but how well they have expressed it in the constrained format of campaign speeches and debates.

Everyone from the highest-profile pundit to the lowliest undecided know-nothing mouths this piety that we care about the issues and the candidate must make his position clear on them. But that can't possibly be true, can it? If it were, everyone would be watching C-Span all the time, rather than CNN and Fox News. If it were true, people would not dismiss candidates like Al Gore as "boring" for trying to policy explain complexities to the people. If it were true, dumbed down sound bites and attack ads would not be so effective. The fact is, nobody has the attention span to wade through truly complex explications of "the issues" and what the candidates would do about them. We know this, but pretend otherwise.

Is it such a mystery what the candidates would do if elected? You can look at Bush's record over the past four years, or Kerry's record in the Senate. You can go to their web sites.

Why should running for president be an oral exam? Is there a correlation in being able to explain your positions on complex issues in simplistic sound-bites and being a good president?

If the voters need help in figuring out what the candidates' presidential administrations would do, whose job is it to help them? Unfortunately, our system does not permit the candidates to fulfill that role: The job of the candidates is to get themselves elected, and explaining complex policy positions is not consistent with electoral success. So whose job is it?

The press! The punditry! They should be undertaking in-depth examinations of the candidates' records, and their advisors records, and make well-informed predictions about what a Kerry or a Bush II administration would look like. But of course they don't do much of that – it doesn't sell enough ad time.

So instead we get something even worse than an oral exam. The media treats a presidential campaign like a beauty pageant: they say "tell us (in 90 seconds) what you would do if elected" but all the while pay more attention to the bathing suit competition – who "looks" more presidential. Is it any surprise that this system produces spokesmodel presidents like George w Bush?

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