Time’s Missed Midterms Opportunity

Cover story rehash is fun, but...

Time’s splashy pre-election cover story is in many ways a doozy. Penned by David Von Drehle, “The Party Crashers”—a look at four election-defining GOP candidates in Meg Whitman, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Christine O’Donnell—is being released with four different covers, each featuring striking images of the individual candidates against a white background. The idea is something like baseball cards I guess; I’ll swap you a Whitman for an O’Donnell near the monkey bars at lunch.

And—to stretch that sporting analogy too far, perhaps—it reads as something of a baseball report. Symptomatic of so much of the national coverage this cycle (and, let’s face it, for many cycles before), Von Drehle’s piece leans heavily on the horse-race politicking stuff. Rising and falling polls? Check. Colorfully sketched outsider personalities? Check. Big picture change in the GOP? Check. What does it all mean for Obama and 2012? Check. Check. Check. Unemployment? Err. Immigration? Umm.

All of that is, of course, important and interesting material. The shift that we have seen in the Republican Party this season is a significant one with implications for the next two years (and likely more) of American policymaking. And as presented by Von Drehle, who uses scant quotation and instead guides readers through each candidate’s journey in his own very narrative style, it’s compelling. However, on the eve of what everyone is insisting is an historic election, a referendum on a flailing presidency, we ask what readers (and importantly, voters) can take away from all this? It turns out, not a lot.

The piece centers around this graf:

Midterm elections are often just rough measurements of the public’s mood and the President’s popularity. But this year, pressed by an uprising on the right, the election has become a fight for the identity of the Republican Party. In a sense, 2010 has turned into Act II of the 2008 GOP drama, in which the free-spending George W. Bush was barely welcome at his own party’s convention and the nomination went to a man famous for flouting party loyalty. As in Hamlet, the action ended with most of the main characters forgotten or dead. Now we’re seeing how an empty stage gets repopulated, as conservatives across the country have elbowed their way into the spotlight, some ready for their star turn, others stumbling over their lines.

And this:

We’ll read the public’s reaction on Election Day, but the verdict inside the GOP has already been rendered. Republicans propose to take a fresh shot at being the party of smaller government (or no government), and anyone who won’t sing that hymn is being thrown out of the choir. The budget-stomping bull of New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, is the party’s new role model, while in the GOP stronghold of Utah, longtime Senator Bob Bennett was rudely dumped simply because he engaged in earmarking and voted for the bank bailout. Small-government purists have captured GOP nominations for major offices from New York to Alaska, Colorado to Kentucky.

The “new GOP” idea then leads into mini snapshots of the rises of Whitman (“The Billionaire”), Rubio (“The Upstart”), Paul (“The Populist”), and O’Donnell (“The Troublemaker”). For those who haven’t been feverishly following the stories of these headline-grabbing candidates for the past year or so—and on that note, where is Sharron Angle? (“The Dragonslayer”, perhaps)—it’s quite the primer. But with the exception of his treatment of Paul, Von Drehl focuses on strategy and positioning rather than positions and issues. This from the Whitman section is typical:

In a Gallup poll earlier this year, Big Business ranked among the least trusted institutions in America — even lower than the news media. The free-spending Whitman has been whipsawed by that perception. On issues large and small, ranging from her ties to Goldman Sachs to her former nanny’s immigration status, Democrats have endeavored to convert Whitman’s most obvious strength (her financial acumen) into a fatal flaw.

Voters are ready to throw the bums out, and CEOs have joined the ranks of the bums. The same dilemma faces former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as she seeks to unseat California Senator Barbara Boxer. After three terms in office, Democrat Boxer has struggled to reach 50% support in the polls, yet she held a slight lead over Fiorina in the last days of the campaign. Meanwhile, in the race to be Florida’s next governor, Republican Rick Scott, a hospital-industry entrepreneur, was neck and neck with former banking executive Alex Sink, a Democrat. Their debates have largely boiled down to trading jabs over which of them was the more rapacious and irresponsible mogul. It’s that kind of year.

Yep, it’s that kind of year.

It’s also the kind of year in which the national press has obsessed over a few sensational and narrative-capturing candidates, much of the time in lieu of covering in any depth the issues these candidates are seeking to repeal and scale back. A year in which everyone played like Politico.

In the week before the election, Time had an opportunity to do something a little different; to use its heft to report out the issues driving the election and point to the differences between where each party stands on them. Or, as their rival Newsweek does in its November 1 edition, to go through the issues and spell out what a Republican-led house would want to do on climate, education, and taxes et al, and how much they will likely get done. Its conjecture, but informed, and a service to readers in fleshing out their poll-booth choices.

Time’s story is fun and flashy, but ultimately just feels like a rehash of the election season and a reminder of the kind of coverage we saw throughout it.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.