Campaign Questions Deserve More Than Just Bumper-sticker Answers

By Jeff Greenfield

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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At the end of the 1964 presidential campaign, so the legend goes, a voter told an inquiring reporter that she had decided to vote against Barry Goldwater because “he wants to sell my TV.” After the mystified reporter probed a bit, he told the voter that Goldwater was in fact talking about selling the TVA — the Tennessee Valley Authority, a pioneering publicly owned utility.

“Well,” said the voter, “I’m not taking any chances.”

This anecdote offers one plausible reason why presidential campaigns are rarely models of voter education: Voters just won’t get it. There’s enough data to fuel a pessimistic, if not despairing, view of the electorate: the students at elite universities who can’t locate the Civil War within the right 50 years; the thumping majority of voters who want entitlements cut, but who are strongly opposed to trimming Social Security, Medicare and Veterans’ Benefits. (Guess what? They’re entitlements.) And our memories of past campaigns are often reduced to bumper-sticker sized fragments: “54-40 or Fight!” “Vote As You Shot!” “A Chicken in Every Pot.” “Read My Lips: No New Taxes.”

So does this notion get candidates and the media off the hook when it comes to framing the agenda of a campaign? Not in my view. After some 35 years working in and covering politics, I’ve come to believe there’s a vicious circle at work, one in which campaigns, the media and the electorate all play a part.

I also think there are tantalizing hints in our political history that this is not inevitable.

This campaign, as much as any I’ve seen, is surrounded by questions of real consequence. Unlike the 2000 election — the so-called “Seinfeld election” because it was about… nothing — there are literally life-and-death matters at home and abroad that simply do not lend themselves to bumper-sticker answers. Here’s a sample of some of the foreign-policy questions the next president will face:

Iran is a government that has enthusiastically supported terrorist groups, and appears to be on its way to becoming a nuclear power. If diplomacy fails to persuade Iran to abandon its apparent desire for nuclear weapons, what is American policy? Do we encourage Israel to take out that capability, as it did with Iraq in 1981? Do we encourage/promote/finance regime change, given widespread internal dissent?

North Korea has or soon will have nuclear weapons; it is also a severely impoverished nation, where mass starvation is a reality. If it chooses to feed itself by selling its nuclear know-how to rogue states, or to stateless groups, does the United States have a diplomatic strategy to dissuade that step? If not, given the ability of North Korea to strike South Korea with long-range artillery at virtually a moment’s notice, does the United States have a military option?

President Bush often has said: “You are either with the terrorists or against them.” But American “allies” such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have elements within the government that support Islamic extremists; they also have undemocratic governments that, at least at times, have worked to restrain those extremists. Does the United States have a policy that can simultaneously push these states to reform without opening the door to extremist control of these countries — one of which sits atop an ocean of oil, the other of which is a nuclear power?

And are there any specific policies of the government of Ariel Sharon that the United States will have to oppose in order to make a Middle East peace more possible? If so, what specific steps can and should the United States take to make such opposition effective?

At home, the swing from trillions of dollars in expected surpluses to trillions of expected deficits is compounded by the aging of the huge baby boom generation. Every serious account of Social Security and Medicare says that without reform, these programs are unsustainable. Is there an alternative to raising the retirement age, raising Social Security and Medicare taxes, or lowering benefits?

It is not exactly a mystery why candidates do not like to deal with such matters. They do not admit of an easy solution; they risk alienating one of the countless constituencies that, in a likely close election, could sink a candidate’s chances in one or another big state. But that’s not the only reason; campaigns have an all-too-legitimate fear that any serious conversation will become the victim of massive media oversimplification.

I’ve often thought that if President Truman had launched the Marshall Plan in today’s journalistic climate, the lead of the story would go something like this:

“President Truman, in an attempt to shore up his wavering popularity among immigrants and create new markets for American business, proposed today….”

In effect, we are in a “postmodern” climate where nothing that a candidate says is taken without a grain — make that a pillar — of salt. So campaigns fear that any effort to deal with a vexing dilemma will be met with a superficial headline that will turn into a powerful 30-second ad. (“Why does Senator Smithers want to risk your grandma’s Social Security…?” “Dithers wants government bureaucrats telling automakers to make 50,000 workers lose their jobs….”) And should a candidate have the temerity to change a position, that in and of itself becomes a damning reality (“Smithers flip-flops on jobs”), rather than evidence of a candidate’s capacity to recognize error and correct it.

For their part, the media by and large fall back on a familiar theme: “If we cover political debate extensively, the public will turn us off.” This may sound like a cop-out, but there’s enough truth in it that it has to be taken seriously. One of the reasons why the broadcast networks have gone from gavel-to-gavel convention coverage to two hours a night to one hour on three nights is that the public has for years been voting with its eyeballs, or remote controls. Nor is this confined to conventions, where there is good reason for believing that nothing much of interest happens at those gatherings anymore. It’s true of news-watchers, as well; networks and local stations have been told for years by the consultants who measure such things that politics is a viewer turn-off — unless, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to move and run for governor in your home state.

So, is this vicious cycle incurable? Not necessarily. There have been success stories of unconventional candidates talking in unconventional ways. Back in 1992, Ross Perot made the federal budget deficit his cause; he bought half-hour chunks of television time and presented a low-tech pie chart argument, including a pitch for a 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax — “Here’s the one you’re not gonna like,” he’d say. It got him 19% of the vote, despite clear evidence of, um, quirkiness. His presence in the debates also helped spark a spike in voter turnout.

Jesse Ventura’s successful third-party bid for governor of Minnesota in 1998 saw the same spike. And John McCain almost beat the odds-on favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 by challenging his own party’s tax-cut mantra. And beyond these examples of powerful personalities, candidates from Robert Kennedy in 1968 to Ronald Reagan in 1980 to Bill Clinton in 1992 have run on a specific, detailed set of policies that challenged existing orthodoxies.

This year, there is little sign that either major-party candidate means to run such a campaign. Unfortunately, the dilemmas they choose to ignore or oversimplify will still be with us on November 3 — which is why the press has got to keep putting these questions on the national agenda, no matter how much the campaigns would prefer they just disappear.

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