Is running for president fun? Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been doing it for the better part of two years now. John McCain, arguably, has been running since late 2004, when he decided to spurn John Kerry’s advances and give George W. Bush that famously awkward hug.
That’s a lot of coffee klatches, a lot of fundraising calls, a lot of state fairs and town meetings and stump speeches and strategy sessions. That’s a lot of speeches with crowds cheering for you, and moments of exultation or depression as the votes come in. It seems, if not always enjoyable, always dramatic.
But through it all, there are the cameras. The dark, unblinking eyes recording every word, waiting for the slip-up or convoluted sentence or accidental truth that can be used to define a candidacy. Maybe, like Obama, you were talking to a private group of supporters and you dropped an infelicitous phrase about economically anxious voters turning toward social issues in a way that makes you, a longtime Christian and supporter of rural gun rights, sound dismissive of both religion and hunting culture.
Or maybe, like John Kerry, you accurately described a congressional process in which you voted for a funding bill for the Iraq war when it was tied to a revenue stream (a rollback of tax cuts, say) but voted against it when it was offered with no funding source. Given the public’s preference for responsible fiscal management, this would actually be a plausibly popular position, but the quote was phrased so that it made you look wishy-washy, and the media used it to typecast rather than inform.
Or maybe, like Bush, you were sitting with a local news reporter, and while you accurately described the situation on the ground in Pakistan, you couldn’t rattle off the name of the general who’d recently assumed power. The story that emerges is not your command of geopolitics but your lack of facility with names.
This gaffe-hunting makes up a substantial slice of contemporary campaign journalism. It is certainly the part that candidates fear most. And it is poisonous to our polity. You often hear that the media are too liberal or too conservative, too corporate or too effete. But to politicians, they are something else altogether: too trivializing and too intent on ferreting out moments of humiliation. They rob politicians of their ability to campaign in an honorable or spontaneous way.
A study by Indiana University telecommunications professors Erik Bucy and Maria Grabe found that from 1968 to 1992, the clips of presidential candidates speaking on network news were cut from an average of one minute to about 10 seconds. Since 1992, that’s dropped to eight seconds. Which means that politicians are being filtered through the media lens more than ever. Only a third of those eight-second clips addressed substantive issues of policy. Ask yourself: How much substantive policy do you think you could communicate in eight seconds?
Even when newspapers and news networks furnish forums at which the candidates can speak to voters at length rather than in sound bites, the process is perverted. Take the debates, which began as substantive clashes, until the moderators grew bored by the same old policy disputes and began to ask questions that would provide juicy clips for the next day’s news. The process culminated in the now-infamous ABC News debate in which moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos abandoned substance for the first hour and focused instead on lapel pins, lunch partners from decades ago and electability concerns. You know, the big issues.
But necessity is the mother of all invention. Just ask Al Gore. Filtered through the lens of a couple of awkward turns of phrase and an oratorical style that could seem tendentious, Gore was seen, in 2000, as a condescending, exaggeration-prone prig. But in the ensuing years, he stepped out of campaign journalism. He began sending his speeches out directly over MoveOn.org’s e-mail list, made a movie that asked people to sit down and listen to him for the better part of two hours, and did his rounds on interview shows on which he could have fairly lengthy conversations with hosts.
The result? A massive rehabilitation of his reputation, including in the eyes of the very political pundits who once spurned him. According to a CBS News poll, Gore’s favorable rating late last year was at 46%, up from 18% in late 1999. At 46%, incidentally, Gore’s rating is higher than the most recent ratings of Bush (30%), Obama (44%), Clinton (42%) or McCain (32%).
Ask those pundits about the new Gore, of course, and they will sigh and search the heavens and moan that, oh, if he had only been this way when he was in politics, how different it all could have been. But he was this way when he was in politics. He was a substantive global-warming obsessive with a penchant for long disquisitions on meaty topics. When his pipeline to the public was a gaffe-hungry media looking for ways to humiliate him, that didn’t turn out so well. When he was able to speak directly to the public, those traits were considerably more attractive.
The strategy Gore pursued in resurrecting his reputation shouldn’t be confined to noncandidates. The problems for the media are structural. In an age of 24-hour news channels, they have more hours than they have news. So the shows are really run as a type of soap opera. Campaigns become ongoing stories with a cast of characters and a history that can be referred back to. That requires the daily construction of a story line. Characters need definition and catchphrases and frailties. Above all, they have to be interesting and arouse strong passions -- be they anger or inspiration -- in viewers.
On a technical level, the visual nature of television requires clips that can be easily and endlessly replayed to remind viewers of what they’re watching and what happened in past episodes. So it’s no surprise that the media hunger for out-of-character gaffes and missteps -- those moments are crucial to the business model.
But politicians increasingly have alternatives. The daily e-mails of the candidates, for instance, reach millions of their supporters (and, for that matter, detractors and people who can’t figure out why they ended up on the e-mail list), and for better or worse, lay out the campaign’s chosen narrative. When Obama gave his speech on race and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., millions of people took to YouTube to watch the unedited version.
And now the campaigns of Obama and McCain are broaching the idea of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates -- a series of unmoderated debates that would leverage the public interest in the campaign to force the media to cover debates without imposing their own narrative or needs on the structure. It’s campaigning as politicians, rather than the media, would have it. Weird as it sounds, that might be better for the process. And, for the candidates, it certainly sounds like more fun.
Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at EzraKlein.com.