The Fleeting Substance of Campaign 2012

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Ezra Klein argues that we’re actually having a pretty substantive presidential campaign:

It’s also had its share of ridiculous gaffes and absurd attacks. But Romney is running on a platform that, though it lacks important details and relies on overly ambitious targets, is definitely a clear vision of the general direction he’d take the country. Obama’s platform is less radical, and much more detailed.

In my experience, you’re actually getting a more serious conversation over the issues if you listen directly to the two campaigns….Now, these speeches and ads aren’t always polite. They’re not even always accurate. But this is what a serious campaign looks like. And it’s up to the media to cover it that way. So no more meta-serious conversing! If you want a serious conversation about the two campaigns’ Medicare plans and you have the good fortune to be speaking on a national television program, just say some serious things about the plans!

That works OK for chat shows, but not so well for news shows. Hell, I write a blog aimed at fairly wonky readers (wonkier than most voters, anyway), but even I have a hard time covering substantive campaign issues all the time. I mean, how many different times can you write about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan? After you’ve done it three or four times, there’s just nothing left unless the candidates themselves say something new about it. Even wonky readers don’t want to read the same post over and over and over. (And I don’t want to write it over and over and over.)

This is the problem with substance: it doesn’t change. Once you’ve outlined both campaigns’ positions on something, there’s not a lot new you can say about it. So you either repeat yourself (boring!) or report on campaign nonsense (non-substantive!). If there were dozens of issues to report about, that would solve the problem, but the plain fact is that most campaigns are won and lost based on three or four major positions. And if those are the things the campaigns are focused on, then those are the things you need to report on. Right now, for example, there are loads of important foreign policy issues we should be talking about: Afghanistan, Syria, the euro, Israel’s apparent desire to bomb Iran, and much more. But like it or not, those just aren’t center stage. You can write a long summary piece about all this stuff, but that’s about it. When you’re done, you’re done. If the campaigns choose not to address these things, there’s nothing new to report about.

It’s easy to say that the media is letting itself be bulldozed by the tyranny of the new. And they are. But the truth is that most of us will turn the channel if we see a star reporter delivering yet another half-hour special on the future of Medicare. And the blogosphere, which is obsessed with Outrage of the Day posting, isn’t much better. So the fault, dear readers, may lie partly in our stars, but mostly in ourselves. If we really, truly voted with our remotes for substance, we’d get it.


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