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Wednesday, May 07, 2003
..but then whoops, NAFTA
Salon's lead story today is on the "Gore-ing" of John Kerry. It's nice to see the assumption that Gore was screwed by the media in 2000 move closer to the mainstream, I guess, but Salon does seem to be missing the point that Kerry is more or less unelectable, and fair or not, the evidence of this early treatment by the press should be an indicator that he's not the best pick for a Democrat who actually wants to see their party retake the White House.

Reading this bit, however, brought up a thought:

Media accounts describe him as phony and calculating, incapable of making a heartfelt statement. His history is analyzed cynically, sometimes falsely: Misrepresentations of his statements and actions metastasize into myth. As a result, he is seen as the archetypal slippery, soulless politician. That much of the supporting evidence is false seems utterly beside the point.

[...]Like Gore, the Massachusetts Democrat has been characterized, with some justice, as being aloof and cold. On Saturday, when asked about his haughty image during the first debate among the Democratic candidates, he tried to laugh it off (in much the same way Gore unsuccessfully joked about being stiff in 2000) by suggesting he "ought to just disappear and contemplate that by myself."

Now, it's conventional wisdom that the most electable Presidential candidates come from the South, and that they are "populist," which is a weird code word for "stupid." This all holds up under the evidence, and is explicable by assumptions that voters want someone they can relate to and someone who is "outside the Washington system," but when you tie electability to a candidate's likely treatment by the press, the question become a bit more murky. Why, for instance, wouldn't a largely eastern-elite press corps feel close to someone like Kerry? Why, in other words, would a bunch of eastern elites seem to find dumb Southerners a lot more likable?

The distressing answer would seem to be that the press corps doesn't want to cover anyone smarter than them--or, at least, anyone who acts smarter than them. (Clinton: smarter than almost everyone else, but smart enough to eat at McDonald's.) People like Gore they find annoying, phony, and stiff. Good ol' Southern boys, on the other hand, are charming, fun, and a barrel o'laughs. Clinton, for instance, kind of tricked the press with the sex-scandal stuff--oh, I'm just a dumb cheatin' redneck like you'd find on Springer, but then whoops, NAFTA. This is, needless to say, almost incredibly dumb of the press and destructive of the electoral process, but it does seem to be the way things are.

So maybe the major fallout of this is that it's rare to find someone smart enough to govern in an actual elected position, particularly at the national level, since the press is rabidly resistant to those kind of images. Instead, smart people end up on staff, and the result is that the people actually running things aren't elected and are therefore far less transparent in their policies, motivations, and actions. If your staff really runs everything, it's a lot harder for your constituents to actually find out what's going on. That also means that is that the people running things couldn't be elected. Now, does that mean they shouldn't be running things? Certainly not--a lot of good ideas have come out of Democratic cabinet members and congressional staffers. (And the think tanks that end up writing policy a lot of the time, staffed, again, by unelectable nerds.) But it does suggest that we've made only a lateral move since the days of party machines that ended up spawning primaries, the Freedom of Information Act, etc., and in many ways we might be worse, since party loyalty has been greatly weakened and, with it, the power of Congress--and we know the trouble that's gotten us into lately.

So can the press help with this? Of course they can. They should be less intimidated by smart candidates and (old chestnut here) focus on the actual substance of the race rather than recycling the endless indie-speak of whether move X was a good PR move or a bad PR move. Say, occasionally, whether it would a bad or a good thing for the country, not just the candidate, and be willing to say that something (an AWOL President landing a jet, say) is transparently a PR move--but also be willing to give politicians the benefit of the doubt from time to time and analyze their policy proposals instead of assuming they're just a political ploy. (Well, of course it's a political ploy--they're trying to get elected. That's obvious. Now what else can you say?) I don't expect them to do this anytime soon, mind, but it would be nice.