The 60-day sprint between the conventions and the general election is the time when, every four years, the political experts come out of the kitchen and join the rest of the cocktail party. It's the time when local television news directors actually pay attention to politics, and even the general voter is able to at least feign an interest in what's going on, as opposed to the usual "Screw 'em all, I hate politics" attitude that permeates the electorate the other 46 months of the cycle. Unfortunately, when it comes to politics, the modern popular media often lacks the resources (or the desire) to make the effort to cover issues, which leads to headlines during this time of year to focus on two things: fluff and horse races.
In an interview with the Washington Post editorial board last week, John McCain's campaign manager said, "This election is not about issues." And if the McCain/Palin campaign gets its way, it probably won't be. Because if the American people start thinking about real issues--the ones we've been dealing with for the last eight years--the GOP ticket won't stand a chance.
Think back to how many times since 2000 you've heard a variation on the phrase "No one could have foreseen" under the current administration. The Enron collapse and subsequent energy crisis, the failure of the levees when Katrina hit New Orleans, the Russian invasion of Georgia, even the original statement made by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that "no one could have foreseen airliners being hijacked and used as missiles to be flown into buildings." Those all go to the heart of real issues that Americans face and will face: terrorism, safety, financial security, and energy.
In the past week the unemployment rate climbed into the range that brings to mind the final months of the George H.W. Bush administration. The government (the ones that Republicans don't much believe in) had to step in and take over both of the quasi-public home mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Al-Qaida is on the move in Pakistan and Afghanistan after being ignored while U.S. troops were sent in for a "surge" in Iraq. Yet another hurricane this season is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. There are "issues" galore this political season, and every one of them has a bearing on what kind of country we'll live in for the next four years.
But just like 10 years ago, when a slavering media preferred to focus on the soap opera they had made of a president's personal behavior, if we are forced to hear about the teenage unwed pregnant daughter of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, we all lose.
"Personality" stories are easy and cheap, and everyone understands them, if only because there's so little to understand. With shrinking newsroom resources, there are fewer people left who understand economics or geopolitics or have any kind of military experience in order to translate policy and tactics into everyday language.
Sarah Palin might be a governor, but what kind of governor does Alaska's constitution call for? Eight years ago a big deal was made of George W. Bush's gubernatorial experience, but Texas has the weakest of "weak governor" systems in the country (as opposed to a state like Maryland, where the governor has substantial power).
Will we get a chance to ask the young running mate of the 72-year-old candidate questions about what we'll do in the intervening years between her "drill here, drill now" philosophy and when that oil--what little of it there is--becomes available? Will we get to ask Palin how she reconciles cutting the funding for programs for teenage mothers in Alaska while her own daughter moves forward with her pregnancy and marriage with her mother's blessing? How does Palin explain the $20 million in long-term debt she saddled her hometown of Wasilla with when she was mayor? And after originally welcoming the state investigation into her ethical problems surrounding the firing of her public safety commissioner and the attempted vendetta against her former brother-in-law's job as a state trooper, how does she explain her sudden turnabout, ordering her staffers not to comply with the investigation and her lawyer's effort to turn the investigation over to a panel composed of her appointees?
Right now the former television sportscaster has taken her teleprompter on the road and is campaigning on the sound bites written for her, and her campaign handlers have told the press that she'll take questions when she's good and ready. But every day that goes by without an answer to those questions is another day the campaign is not guided by issues but by advertising and personality.
Long gone are the days when Republicans told former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind they could make their own reality. The true reality stepped into the picture after eight years of the GOP thinking it could bend the nation and the world to its will. We have less than 60 days to learn who will be steering the ship of state through the next four years, and stories about hockey moms and lipsticked pit bulls just won't cut it. H
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