The best of the recent Lincoln profiles may be the earliest, Shailagh Murray’s Washington Post piece of Nov. 17. Nearly a week before Lincoln’s shifting views on the public option caught the attention of the Web world, the Post documented Lincoln’s newfound resistance to the proposal. The article also noted a few of her policy concerns other than the public option (small business coverage, the cost of medical procedures, coordinating care).
But the Post story has weaknesses, too, including its failure to explore Lincoln’s statement that we “can’t afford” a “government-funded public option.” She doesn’t agree with most of her caucus on this point, so what accounts for the difference? Is she interpreting the facts differently? Is she working from a different set of values? How does she explain the shift in her thinking? Can she explain the shift in her thinking? And is the public option the sum total of her interest in health care reform—is there anything she values that isn’t in the bill? From these stories, it’s not clear.
This is, in part, the old, earnest complaint that political journalists should spend more time on policy and less on politics: a profile of Lincoln could have been a vehicle to explore the ongoing debate over, for example, the public option. At the very least, it could have mentioned her policy views before the closing paragraphs.
But these stories don’t really even deliver on the political level, because—just as you can’t seriously discuss potential policy alternatives without noting political constraints—you can’t explain how someone might respond to a political dilemma without discussing what her policy priorities are. It makes sense for the press to focus on the political pressures and constraints Lincoln faces; if she wants to keep her seat, those factors are no doubt on her mind. At the same time, though, Lincoln is in that seat for a reason: she has policy goals that she would like to achieve. Maybe she’s being straightforward about those goals; maybe she’s being cagey. Maybe they’re well-reasoned and on point; maybe they’re incoherent. We don’t really know, because the coverage doesn’t say. And by giving scant attention to that seemingly straightforward angle, the press underplayed a key part of the story.