Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bad Campaigns, Bad Media--What Must Be Done?

One of the most discouraging aspects of this year's campaign is the more or less direct and inverse relationship between its length and the rapidly escalating depravity of its content. As the race goes on, it becomes less substantive, vapid and personality based. The last ABC debate was only one unshining example of the quick-sand dragging the campaign and American democracy into the gutter.

And seemingly like every presidential contest, the leading Democrat is being tarred with the fatal "elitist" brush; he's unmanly, unpatriotic, high-fallutin, and not someone you want to have a beer with. And even though Democrats are notorious for their supposed moral relativism, the leading Democrat is paradoxically said to be a "scold", moral or otherwise, for...well I don't know. But I guess the media Republicans know it when they see it.

The NYT, which has supported Hillary Clinton, has an op-ed today, already a subject of some notable comment, laying much of the blame for the tragic state of affairs on the NY Senator and the negative campaign she has waged.

While there is obviously some truth to this complaint, as well as to the many well documented media transgressions this particular cycle, let me suggest that much of the reason why the campaign's substance, media driven and otherwise, has plumeted to such levels, stems from the many structural inhibitions against candidate policy innovation. The barriers, real and imagined, to candidates getting traction while stating unpopular truths or challenging sacred constituencies and ideas almost inherently ensures that the leading political candidates will not be able to offer much in the way of specifics and that, consequently, campaigns will rapidly degenerate into frivolous, insipid commentary about the candidate's preacher (if the candidate is a Democrat) or flagpin or whatever. The length of the campaign, the forces designed to ensure comformity, and the media saturation of the campaign and of television's particular obsession with candidate personalities all strongly press for just such a spectacle.

So how does a candidate rise above this stuff?

By being policy-controversial. By being policy-risky. By not playing it safe. By challenging some bit of conventional wisdom and taking what may at first glance, and may in fact truly be, the minority view point on some rarely discussed topic that everyone in the media holds to be a matter of political concensus unworthy of contestation.

Obama made a positive step in this direction with his speech on race (and religion). But even this was laced with a good deal of abstract rhetoric that attempted to placate all participants.

But how about giving a speech on the fallacies of the nation's fifty year Cuba policy, and the irrational and disproportionate effect the influence of Cuban exiles in Florida have played in the process? Specifically, how about giving a speech calling for an absolute end to the embargo?

Or how about giving a speech calling the War on Drugs a failure and promising to reduce federal sentences for drug possession, eliminating the position of national Drug Czar, and asserting the primacy of privacy rights over those over law enforcement budgets and prison construction entrepreners?

It might be argued that both of these policies have sufficient political consensus requiring that they not be disturbed, or that not enough people care about them or consider them priorities, or that such controversies simply aren't worth the trouble and would divert a campaign from otherwise positive policy contributions should it win (which stirring up these controversies could seriously undermine).

These concerns may be valid. But given the fact that the candidate's policy positions are only marginally different from one another in many other policy domains, the failure to take greater policy risks, to challenge bad policies means that campaigns and media coverage will continue to focus on the shallow and insipid. If one is going to be subject to attacks from the opposition, why not make the attacks over issues that matter and would in fact highlight stark policy differences with opponents?