May 12, 2008
Why campaigns push mini-issues—and why we listen
What does it mean that Barack Obama for many years attended a church whose pastor believed that the 9/11 attacks were blowback from US actions around the world and that the US government introduced AIDS into the black community? What does it mean that Hillary Clinton exaggerated the risk she took in visiting Bosnia? What is signified by Obama’s comment to a San Francisco supporter that heartland convictions about guns and religion are motivated by resentment about unaddressed economic misfortunes? Why did Clinton and McCain advocate the summer gas-tax holiday, a proposal that stood no chance of congressional passage and would, in any case, save less per week than the price of two cups of McDonald’s coffee?
Most of all, what does it mean that a campaign between two candidates as strong—and as different–as Clinton and Obama turned into a nationwide rumination of the interpretation of these seemingly minor matters? And what does it mean that the campaign ahead, a campaign between two candidates as strong—and as different–as Obama and McCain, may also turn, not on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the state of the economy, but on mini-issues that would seem more at home in tabloid journalism than on the evening news and the front pages of major daily newspapers?
The journalists who cover, analyze and comment on the presidential campaign are almost unanimous in lamenting the attention given to episodes like Rev. Wright and the gas-tax holiday. The Washington Post’s David Broder, for example, normally the most judicious and unjudgmental of commentators, described the “endless Democratic presidential campaign [as having] lurched from irrelevance to trivia,” its issues “some of the phoniest of this entire election cycle.”
Many ascribed the Obama-Clinton campaign’s focus on what appear to be peripheral events to the lack of clear philosophical differences between the two candidates. But does anyone believe that such matters will not also play an important role in the general election, when the philosophical differences between Obama and John McCain will be wide and stark?
The opposing campaigns play an important role in nourishing public preoccupation with mini-issues, often unearthing embryonic mini-issues and running them up the flagpole to see if the media and their viewers and readers salute; and then slyly crafting passive-aggressive responses in which the candidates allow critical responses to be pulled out of them only after a great show of reluctance and assertions of the desire to discuss larger issues.
Of course the media play a critical role. Of course they would rather devote air time and column inches to analyzing the differences between competing plans to regulate financial institutions. But once sensational mini-issues are “out there,” once the candidates are discussing them, the media have no choice, no choice at all, but to report on them. More to the point, TV news, talk shows and televised debates are not broadcast as a public service. The idea is to attract viewers in numbers that will attract advertisers. And TV channels and advertisers know that they will draw more viewers with fireworks about Reverend Wright than with a droning disquisition on whether tax cuts stimulate consumer buying and business investment.
But none of that really explains why audiences respond with such alacrity to gotcha moments like Obama’s comments about heartland bitterness. There is a marketplace of ideas in campaigns, and if voters weren’t buying, candidates would stop selling.
One reason that the electorate buys into debates about mini-issues is the difficulty that they, like the candidates, have wrestling with the real issues. Nobody really has answers to problems like health care, rising gas prices, the falling dollar and increasing college tuition—at least to the extent that by answers we mean actions that will make these problems go away or even reduce them to manageable proportions.* And for sure nobody has answers that will fit into network news or campaign ad sound bites, which means even if the candidates discussed them at length, that nobody will hear them except the few hundred or few thousand who attend the event. We can all, however, form opinions about why people actually care about anti-gun laws or why Hillary exaggerated the perils of her trip to Bosnia.
These incidents, moreover, although not earth-shaking in themselves, are not without significance. In fact they are akin to the “telling details” that writers look for to capture a person or event in a phrase or anecdote. They distill large and complex issues into proportions that those of us who are not professional or avocational issue-ponderers can get a handle on. While we may debate its meaning, for example, it strains credulity to suppose that the long and relatively close association of someone as studiedly temperate as Obama seems to be** with someone as studiedly intemperate as Wright seems to be tells us nothing. Similarly, Clinton’s fable about Bosnia was not an isolated incident. Whether true or untrue, it was part of Clinton’s effort to portray herself as more experienced than Obama by virtue of having been first lady, traditionally more a social status than a position, but one which, Clinton needed to suggest, had involved her with matters of great domestic and international importance.
Mini-issues also resonate because of the campaigns’ all-but-total abandonment of actual political debate in favor of a kind of meta-debate, in which positions are taken and forums are staged, not so that a candidate can take a position but so that the candidate can be observed taking a position. The McCain-Clinton gas-tax holiday was advanced not in the hope that it might be passed, but to signify that although the two candidates’ wealth insulated them from the kind of economic hardship represented by rising gas prices, they recognized that gas prices were biting people, and if they could not remedy the problem, they could at least express concern in some semi-concrete way. Penn professor Kathleen Hall Jamison recently delivered on PBS’s Bill Moyers’ Journal a penetrating analysis of Clinton and Obama TV ads and appearances. Clinton, she suggested, went on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly program neither to agree with nor confront O’Reilly’s ersatz blue-collar conservatism, but to demonstrate the kind of toughness that she believes is the Democrats’ only hope against Republicans in the fall. And Obama and his wife appeared on the Today show in a living-room-like set, Jamison said, to contrast the candidate’s calm and reasoned persona with the ravings of Rev. Wright.
In such a political environment, where candidates’ positions and public personae are molded, buffed and focus-grouped—“Sincerity is everything,” George Burns (or Groucho Marx) is supposed to have said. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”—people hunger for any scrap of authenticity, any scintilla of evidence of what the candidate is really like. And in addition to recognizing mini-issues as bite-size nuggetizations of important issues, they seize, I believe, on what originate as gaffes or off-hand remarks as the only things about the candidates that appear not to have been crafted for public consumption.
We are far past the point at which we can go back to campaigns in which unscripted candidates debate real issues.*** It’s not even clear that there are actually halcyon days to go back to. Thomas Jefferson’s enemies published accusations that he had fathered children with a slave woman—accusations that, it turns out, may well have been true. John F. Kennedy made accusations of a—non-existent—missile gap a centerpiece of his 1960 campaign. The 1884 campaign pitted Republic House Speaker James Blaine, “the continental liar from the state of Maine,” against Democratic Gov. Grover Cleveland, who was forced to admit that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Cleveland won, but only after a Blaine supporter, in the last week of the campaign, referred to the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion,” which energized Catholic voters to vote for Cleveland.
Mini-issues will arise again the fall campaign. Rev. Wright will be back. So will Weatherman Bill Ayers. With the summer over, the gas-tax holiday may re-emerge as a Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday. Whether Obama wills it or not, McCain’s mini-issues will arise as well. Whether it will it be an incident related to McCain’s age, the circumstances of his divorce and remarriage, the years in Congress before he got religion after the Keating Five episode, or the conflict between his excoriation of movement conservatives in 2000 and his courting of them as he prepared for 2008, mini-issues will play a role in the fall as they have in the winter and spring.
But perhaps, instead of pushing them away as we do vices and guilty pleasures, instead of yearning for reasoned discussion of important issues—which is always available on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer—we should embrace the mini-issues. Perhaps instead of assuming that people don’t know what’s good for them when they hearken to coverage of mini-issues, we should assume that they do, and then use that interest as a window for exploring the larger issues for which mini-issues are the most visible and most interesting part.