Substance Over Image
The title of Krugman's column refers to what we need not what we have.
Six years ago a man unsuited both by intellect and by temperament for high office somehow ended up running the country.This brings us to 2007 and the battle for the Democratic nomination. For the front runners - Hillary and Barack - it's all about image once again.
How did that happen? First, he got the Republican nomination by locking up the big money early.
Then, he got within chad-and-butterfly range of the White House because the public, enthusiastically encouraged by many in the news media, treated the presidential election like a high school popularity contest. The successful candidate received kid-gloves treatment — and a free pass on the fuzzy math of his policy proposals — because he seemed like a fun guy to hang out with, while the unsuccessful candidate was subjected to sniggering mockery over his clothing and his mannerisms.
Today, with thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead thanks to presidential folly, with Al Qaeda resurgent and Afghanistan on the brink, you’d think we would have learned a lesson. But the early signs aren’t encouraging.
“Presidential elections are high school writ large, of course,” declared Newsweek’s Howard Fineman last month. Oh, my goodness. But in fairness to Mr. Fineman, he was talking about the almost content-free rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — a rivalry that, at this point, is mainly a struggle over who’s the bigger celebrity and gets to lock up the big donors.Krugman suggests we demand some substance and ask some questions.
First, what do they propose doing about the health care crisis? All the leading Democratic candidates say they’re for universal care, but only John Edwards has come out with a specific proposal. The others have offered only vague generalities — wonderfully uplifting generalities, in Mr. Obama’s case — with no real substance.He concludes with this:
Second, what do they propose doing about the budget deficit? There’s a serious debate within the Democratic Party between deficit hawks, who point out how well the economy did in the Clinton years, and those who, having watched Republicans squander Bill Clinton’s hard-won surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy and a feckless war, would give other things — such as universal health care — higher priority than deficit reduction.
Mr. Edwards has come down on the anti-hawk side. But which side are Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on? I have no idea.
Third, what will candidates do about taxes? Many of the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Should they be extended, in whole or in part? And what do candidates propose doing about the alternative minimum tax, which will hit tens of millions of middle-class Americans unless something is done?
Fourth, how do the candidates propose getting America’s position in the world out of the hole the Bush administration has dug? All the Democrats seem to be more or less in favor of withdrawing from Iraq. But what do they think we should do about Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan? And what will they do if the lame-duck administration starts bombing Iran?
The point of these questions isn’t to pose an ideological litmus test. The point is, instead, to gauge candidates’ judgment, seriousness and courage. How they answer is as important as what they answer.
Over the last six years we’ve witnessed the damage done by a president nominated because he had the big bucks behind him, and elected (sort of) because he came across well on camera. We need to pick the next president on the basis of substance, not image.As I read this I can't help but think that Paul Krugman is as delusional as Dick Cheney. Substance will continue to take the back seat to image. The candidates don't employ policy makers they employ image makers. One of the major reasons for this is the nature of the media. Joe Gandelman had a good post yesterday, Should News Entertain Or Inform — Or Both?.
–The tabloidization of the American news media. The biggest 20th century shift came with the advent of the evening newscast, a bullet in the head to many afternoon newspapers which either shut down or merged with morning papers. But the BIGGEST shift in content came in the 1980s, after the Gart Hart/Donna Rice scandal that transformed Hart from a symbol of the future to a laugh-assured punchline. It was the National Enquirer, under aggressive, new leadership, that got the pix of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on the boat Monkey Business. It looked like a photo that had been photoshopped — but it wasn’t. This was the Golden Age of the American Supermarket Tabloid. And the news media scrambled to compete with the supermarket tabs on that one and never looked back. Now you didn’t only have to beat the Times and Post, but you had to beat the Enquirer, the Star and the Globe.And Joe has more, I'll just give you the bullets.
- –The rise of talk radio
- –The 24 Hour News Cycle and Fox News’ impact
- –The decline of truly high profile journalistic role models
- –The dominance of personality over issues in politics and news
If you look at all of the above, the common denominator is the injection of personality into politics and news coverage. In the end, the personalities involved drive the narrative more than the ISSUES. Whether it’s news, talk radio, blog posts or blog comments, it now comes down to taking an issue and turning in into something linked to a person. (Note how in many comments on blogs if someone disagrees with a post they immediately turn it into a personal attack or a personal characterization — one that upon examination often proves to be wrong, oversimplified or simply just lashing out).
- –News editors and corporations can’t just ignore the competition and do 100 percent their own thing