Media Coverage of Campaign Rhetoric

Robert Samuelson has apparently been reading OTB, as he makes points in his current column that I’ve been making of late.

Political campaigns are exercises in exuberant irrationality. People say things that they know are untrue; indeed, if they believed some of these things, they ought to be barred from office. But the media treat these routine untruths as respectable statements that ought to be analyzed and debated. My favorite example involves jobs. George Bush and John Kerry argue over who’d do best at job creation. The truth is that presidents create few jobs. Their policies may influence the economy over the long run. But at any moment, jobs depend mainly on the business cycle. Every phony job boast ought to inspire the following qualification: “Most economists regard these claims as absurd.” But the media cannot be dismissive without appearing arrogant, partisan or both. So we let these rhetorical stupidities stand. Some political reporters (who, as a class, are generally uninterested in policy, although they’re remarkably well-informed and smart about politics) may not even recognize them as stupidities.

Exactly. But candidates have to act as if they’ve got a magic economy wand and that things would be better if only we had a president who cared more about the little guy.

The media pretend that Bush and Kerry are debating big issues, when they aren’t. To be sure, some big issues are automatically engaged: Iraq and terrorism, for example. But here differences mainly involve style and competence, not substance. (See, for example, Kerry’s July 4 op-ed in The Post. It has few big disagreements with Bush.) Beyond security, Bush and Kerry quietly agree not to debate some of the big issues facing the country. To wit: (a) baby boomers’ retirement costs; (b) immigration; and (c) China. You won’t hear much about these, because candor would offend millions of voters.

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It’s easier to say nothing, and the media condone the silence. Is there an alternative? You cannot write a story every day that begins: “George Bush [or John Kerry] yesterday refused to discuss [name your favorite issue].” Worse, we treat their proposals as serious when they’re often campaign slogans.

Exactly right. Taking hard positions on hard issues–assuming the candidates even really have them–would immediately open them up for attack from the other side and alienate somebody. It’s far easier to be vague, promise “good jobs,” and talk about “values.”

The media aren’t keeping the candidates honest. But I doubt we can do much better. In a democracy, people are entitled to their delusions. Campaigns respond to what voters want (or don’t want) to hear. What they apparently want to hear now is that the other guy is dishonest, inept and dangerous. Fine. Democracy is an imperfect process. Presidential elections are less about specific agendas than about character, trust and basic instincts. Americans already know how Bush and Cheney govern. Now Americans will judge the character and instincts of John Kerry and Edwards under the stresses of the campaign. People will decide.

Probably this is the best democracy can do: a common-sense judgment culled from much exaggeration, simplification and distortion. We in the media will enjoy ourselves. But those of us who think we’re a powerful force for clarity and candor ought to sober up. Mostly, we’re part of the clatter.

Yep. Frankly, I’m not sure we really want reporters constantly fisking candidates. It’s the job of the opposition candidates and parties to keep each other honest.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.