Following in her husband’s footsteps, Laura Bush made an appearance in Ohio Tuesday to raise money for Joy Padgett, the Republican nominee in the state’s 18th congressional district. The $100-a-plate fundraiser and $1,000-per-person private reception generated as much as $150,000 for Padgett, who emerged from a five-way Republican primary with 66 percent of the vote earlier this month.
“State Sen. Joy Padgett campaigned with First Lady Laura Bush yesterday in an effort to stoke the finances of her quick-hit bid for Congress. Padgett aligned herself closely with Bush administration policies on the Iraq war and taxes,” one newspaper reported from Granville, Ohio, east of Columbus.
Comparing that lede to the beginning of another major report from the scene is, we think, instructive:
Joy Padgett, the GOP’s new congressional candidate in Ohio, has been in a jam when it comes to finding a big-name Republican who could come to town and bring more than trouble.
Gov. Bob Taft? He was convicted of illegally accepting gifts. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell? He is getting trounced in the polls. Bob Ney, the current congressman? He admitted taking bribes and then checked himself in for alcohol rehabilitation.
What the first example (from the Columbus Dispatch) had that the second (from the Washington Post) did not was any mention of bread-and-butter issues — a subtle difference in framing and focus that played out over the course of both articles.
“GOP Scandals Dog Ohio Candidate: Embarrassments in State and Nationwide Make Affiliation a Political Albatross,” declared the headline in the Post, which said Laura Bush offered Padgett “at least a one-day respite from the troubles that her radioactive party affiliation is causing in Ohio’s 18th District.” “Democrats are pressing the scandal issue relentlessly,” wrote the Post, “and it appears to be working with some voters” (and, it appears, with the Post): “In a year when Republicans are battling low poll numbers nationally, there are few places where the GOP brand is more scuffed than in Ohio, where, since President Bush’s election-night triumph here two years ago, national and local scandals have polluted the political atmosphere for GOP candidates.”
The Post presented evidence from a new Dispatch poll indicating Democrats could dominate this year’s statewide races in Ohio, said missteps and scandals by Indiana and Kentucky’s respective governors “do nothing but harm GOP candidates in their states,” and reported that Padgett “is counting on voters to overlook her self-described ‘casual’ and ‘not social’ relationship with the prison-bound Ney.” The last four paragraphs dealt with Democratic nominee Zack Space’s strategy “to link the GOP hopeful with the GOP congressman so that voters will see ‘Padgett’ on the ballot and think ‘Ney.’” Space’s contention that the disgraced Ney “anointed” Padgett as his successor, the Post concluded, is something she has to deny “over and over” (not least in the Post).
Such a focus on scandal left the Post article with one solid paragraph on actual issues, with the paper ironically reporting that Padgett “is trying to force the debate away from her party’s problems toward policy issues such as immigration that she hopes will offer more favorable terrain.”
In contrast, the Dispatch substantively delved into those unsexy but important policy issues, including tax cuts, immigration and free trade — allowing it to make the observation that Padgett’s positions on the last two “mirror those of Ney, who was popular in the district until an influence-peddling scandal ate away at his support,” and that, “As Padgett distances herself from Ney, she’ll also try to draw contrasts with Space, whose positions on some issues are indistinguishable from hers.”
If the Post had mentioned that complication, it could have better supported its argument, but it did not. Meanwhile, the Dispatch did report on the Ney scandal (with Padgett, in choice quotes, again combating the impression that Ney anointed her his successor), but it did not do so at the expense of the issues.
The Post piece was skillfully woven, no question about it. But the Dispatch story, while not as flashy, was better.