The 2008 campaign will be remembered as the first legitimate shot for a woman or an African-American to become president. But another question of historic significance arises as tomorrow’s Pennsylvania primary finally and actually happens: Can a political party withstand a long and brutal fight for the nomination in the era of the 24-hour news cycle?
Not since the Jimmy Carter-Edward Kennedy battle of 1980 have the Democrats endured anything approaching the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama donnybrook. And not since the Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan dust-up in 1976 have the Republicans gone deep into extra innings.
But those contests were serene affairs compared to today’s political combat, made ever more sensational by the media’s breathless and hourly “need” for new morsels of possible, potential or speculative scandal because, heaven knows, the Situation Room wouldn’t be the Situation Room without a situation. So let’s come up with something — anything — to whittle these candidates down to size, like, for example, we were wondering why Obama refuses to wear an American flag pin on his lapel because, as everyone knows, not wearing a flag pin could be a sign that he’s, well, (How shall we put it?) not with the program.
“The 24-hour news cycle abhors a vacuum,” wrote Carl Leubsdorf, the veteran political columnist for the Dallas Morning News.
The world waits impatiently
Robert Lusetich of the Australian wrote it this way: “Legions of journalists, pundits and bloggers facing empty screens and rolling cameras must find something to say as the world waits impatiently … . Hence, they write and speak, no matter how shallow or irrelevant or pithy their words. How else to properly explain the dissection, like a gigantic classroom science experiment featuring Obama as the hapless frog?”
Indeed, the so-called coverage of the Democratic primary, especially during the long, empty six weeks leading to tomorrow’s voting in Pennsylvania, has subjected the candidates to death by a thousand cuts. Many Democrats wonder if the coverage of Obama and Clinton has so diminished them in the eyes of voters that whoever survives will roll into Denver on a gurney.
That prospect thrills Republicans, who should be having a bad year considering the sagging economy, bungled war and unpopular president. But they aren’t. They should be aware, however, that the 24-hour news cycle can bite both ways. Once the talking heads tire of chewing on Obama’s former pastor, his bitterness remark, his “tie” to somebody who was once in the Weather Underground, and Clinton’s fictitious duck-and-cover in Bosnia, they may start peeling away John McCain.
Whether the candidates and their media tormentors will ever get around to the really big and boring questions like global warming, energy supply, the mortgage crisis, the economy, health care, China policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is anyone’s guess. Perhaps when the fall campaign begins and substantive differences between candidates emerge, there will be time to talk about such things.
Meanwhile, liberal commentators have been particularly crabby about the state of the Democratic race. Frank Rich devoted his New York Times Sunday column to panning last week’s ABC debate, which devoted at least half of its time to “gotcha” topics.
Discontent with media fatuousness
“Ludicrous as the whole spectacle was, ABC would have not been so widely pilloried had it not tapped into a larger national discontent with news media fatuousness,” Rich wrote. “The debate didn’t happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of the orgy of press hysteria over Obama’s remarks about ‘bitter’ small-town voters. …
“For all the racket about ‘bittergate’ — and breathless intimations of imminent poll swings and superdelegate stampedes — the earth did not move. The polls hardly budged, and superdelegates continued to migrate mainly in Obama’s direction. Thus did another overhyped 2008 story line go embarrassingly bust … .”
As Leubsdorf pointed out in his column, however, mini-flaps early in campaigns sometimes linger into the fall and influence the final outcome. In 1988 it was Al Gore who, in a spring debate, first raised the Willie Horton smear that bedeviled Michael Dukakis into the fall. And the “Swift Boat” nonsense that arose in mid-summer followed John Kerry all the way to his demise in 2004.
Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times implicated not only the media but Obama himself in a masterful column: “How Obama Fell to Earth.”
Had he put away Clinton in New Hampshire, Obama might have maintained the high-minded campaign that appeared to set him above ordinary politics. But, exhausted by attacks from Clinton and the media, the Illinois senator “has emerged as a more conventional politician and an orthodox liberal,” Brooks wrote. His sweeping pledge never to raise taxes on anyone but the wealthy precludes any real progress on health care reform and big energy-solving projects. His promise to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months was made with no knowledge of what the conditions will be like if and when he takes office. These “grand and cynical promises … are a sign of someone thinking more about campaigning than governing.” They are, said Brooks, evidence that Obama is an ordinary politician after all.
The Boston Globe’s Peter Canellos summed up Obama’s confrontation with the 24-hour news cycle and the new hyper-politics this way: “For 15 months he has flayed away at ‘politics as usual’ with good results. But lately ‘politics as usual’ has struck back.”
Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.