Just a month ago, the Washington press corps was still enthralled with this presidential election year. It was packed with firsts: For example, it is the first time since the 1952 election that neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice president is a candidate in the general election; the first time a woman is running for president; and the first credible African-American candidate is on the stump.
Now, the joy has gone out of the thing. Rather than covering great events, most reporters I know feel that they are on a kind of gaffe watch. Gaffes are important in presidential politics, and a single misstatement can change the odds dramatically. John McCain may yet rue that he seems to be confused by the Sunnis and the Shiites, and Iraq and Iran. Barack Obama must wish that he had never diagnosed the white working-class male as “bitter.”And Hillary Clinton, a lady with an eye for her place in history, must loathe the fact that she was the first to play the race card.
Because of the shallowness of this phase of the presidential race, trivia dominates.
Reporters hate, but they are also partly responsible for, the mid-election doldrums. They are sanctioned by tradition to question the company a candidate keeps, but they are not sanctioned to press that candidate on how he or she would staff their administration. So we know all we want to–and more–about their preachers, their spouses, their finances and their pastimes.
But to a much lesser extent, we know the policies that the candidates are predisposed to pursue. McCain, for example, favors a comprehensive health care system built around private insurance. Clinton leans towards a government-mandated system. And Obama, who has yet to clearly define his plan, seems to lean towards government mandates. But we do not know whether they could get their plans through Congress, or who would be the health care czar. In fact, we only have a hint of the direction in health care that the new president would like to go.
We really do not know how any of the candidates would pursue peace in the Middle East, or react to an increasingly bellicose Russia and an aggressive China. The candidates dare not tell us what they feel, for fear it will become a contentious part of the election.
The system demands that the candidates tell us what good people they are, not how they will govern. A soupcon of an idea, like suspending the gas tax, becomes a surrogate for a real energy policy.
Hundreds of very good reporters now feel frustrated. They feel they must write about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., when they know he will have no bearing on the way that a President Obama would govern. Likewise, they must dutifully cover Clinton riding in a pickup truck to prove her bona fides as a representative of the working class, when they know perfectly well that she has been riding in limos for decades and living the elite life, even if she is not an elitist.
Then there is McCain—the candidate that more reporters know personally than the other two–who is doing the Republican rounds, right hand extended, left hand clutching the talking points. The Straight Talk Express has become the Schmooze Local.
If reporters and commentators seem to want to show Clinton the door, it is no wonder. They do not dislike her personally, but they are desperate to get on with the main event. While they are on gaffe watch, they know that big issues are in abeyance, and that the Democratic contest has become a distraction and a bore.