Turning Point

It’s been a hell of a race. Now, let’s get serious.

This is Part Two of a series on the start of the 2008 presidential election’s general campaign. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of the article.

From New Hampshire to Nevada to North Carolina, from Iowa to Indiana, to Obama’s capping win this week, it’s been an amazing, essentially unprecedented, race.

Through it all, the press has been all over the election, with John King’s interactive maps and Chuck Todd’s yellow telestrator ingrained features of voting night. We’ve learned about the Democratic Party’s jury-rigged and never before tested nomination system—pledged delegates, proportional allocation, unaffiliated add-ons, and all. Sifting through that mess has been well and good, a civics lesson of a sort.

But here’s what worries me. We’re leaving the season in which every few weeks we get votes, data points ripe for election analysis. That means, until November, all that remains across these next five months is a campaign.

And you hardly need a study to know that at, as far as campaign coverage goes, far more much attention has been devoted to the churn of the sideshows—the Reverend Wright, Norman Hsu, Geraldine Ferraro, et al—than discussions of the differences between the candidates’ policies, or general discussion of the country’s concerns. We turned on the TV and most of what we got was a parade of fluff, interspersed with charges and counter charges from surrogates.

The press can claim a little bit of an out here, as far as the last five month’s slog goes: Obama and Clinton weren’t substantively all that different on policy. Here’s Jonathan Capehart, an editorial writer for The Washington Post, making that point in one of his frequent appearances on MSNBC:

The policy differences between Obama and Clinton were so miniscule that, of course, we focused on the personal and dramatic and maybe even the trivial. But when it comes to the battle between McCain and Obama, the differences are so stark that we’ll be focused a whole lot more on substance—and also, you know, style and trivial things.

Capehart is right: contrasting Obama with McCain won’t be remotely as challenging for the press. But his noble thought is paired with a disclaimer—the press isn’t leaving the trivial behind. It would be naive and marmish to expect us to—campaigns are interesting, and their mechanics important.

Still, it’s a matter of priorities, of balancing the mix, and making adequate space to cover the issues that do matter. And that doesn’t need to be so hard.

Each night on Hardball, Chris Matthews’s eminently watchable round up of the day’s political news—he presents a “Big Number.” Most nights, the number is a cheeky bit of campaign marginalia. On February 18, he featured the number of times someone had fainted at an Obama rally (his count was five); on April 24, the number of television appearances Clinton made the morning after her Pennsylvania victory (six), on May 8, the number of vice presidents who have gone on to “fill the big chair” (fourteen). And so on.

On April 4, as is occasionally the case, the Big Number was more substantive: 80,000, the number of jobs that the Labor Department reported we’d lost in March—the greatest one month loss on record. Matthews noted it with a lament, and wrapped up the show.

But let’s say Matthews had featured that number at the top of the show, and asked for comment from his guests. Well, that night, interviewees included journalists David Corn, Margaret Carlson, Dominic Carter, and Joan Walsh. Also on were Democratic strategist Tad Devine, Obama-backing former congressman Kwesi Mfume, Clinton-backing congressman Gregory Meeks, and Michelle Bernard of the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum.

None of those folks, as bright as they may be, are economic experts. That’s because that day Matthews assembled his guests to speak about something else—not the candidates’ plans for jobs, for trade, for the economy—but a series of campaign churn matters: were the places where the candidates observed the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination politically wise? What to do about Michigan and Florida? Were the Clintons forthcoming enough in their tax return release?

I’m not really faulting Matthews here. The point is structural. Hardball is well set up to chew over politics, and poorly set up to cover issues that people care about and potential solutions to them, whether put forth by the candidates or others.

But would it have been too hard to book another sort of panel? One salted with trade experts from unions and consumer groups? Think-tankers? Someone from the National Alliance of Manufacturers, or a couple of labor or economics professors? All it would take is a new Rolodex. And why not build such a substantive panel from time to time? Why not reprogram John King’s touch board to explain health care markets?

The problem has a parallel in the print press. Those campaign journalists, again no dolts, are simply not policy experts. Our best papers do employ journalists who are experts in their fields, but their powers aren’t always unleashed on the campaign.

As journalists, our main job is to be relevant to the life of the nation, and to our democracy. Our best work is both engaging and enlightening, and we’ve done some of that.

But over the next five months, we need to do more.

Turning Point:

Part One: Scandal! Oh, Nevermind

Part Two:Let’s get serious

Part Three:The Supreme Court

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.