They Just Don’t Make Big Announcements Like They Used To

These are silly times.

I will always have a warm fuzzy feeling remembering 2008. That was the kind of presidential campaign you can tell your grandchildren about.

There are some of us for whom presidential politics serves as major league sport and popular entertainment. It is often as competitive and as salacious as any story worthy of E! or ESPN. But part of the obsession is that it is supposed to be a healthy obsession–in a perfect world, the next step in the journey through the presidential campaign is actually more important than the next plot twist on “Mad Men.” It should feel edifying to watch a presidential campaign unfold; it should reveal essential truths about the nation, about its participants, or both.

I’m not delusional. I realize this is not the world we live in. BUT– it seemed like this week had finally provided one of those moments when good policy and good politics intersect to create a dramatic happening of sorts. (I’m talking, of course, about this. Sorry, really, I meant this.)

It’s possible I’m defining “dramatic” down with this assessment. President Obama did the right thing in endorsing gay marriage, publicly. Everyone expected he would, because he had to, of course. And of course, his people still polled the crap out of this question first… and had members of his Cabinet and his Vice President prepare the ground very carefully (or hapazardly, depending on your point of view)… before making his announcement in a television interview aired in the middle of the day.

Still, it is a real issue that matters to many real people who feel really strongly about it. Progress on gay marriage will happen state by state, but the support of the President of the United States is, definitionally, significant. It will energize voters (and donors) for and against him. It is a potential turning point in the race for his reelection, one that came sooner than many had thought.

And by the next day, the chatter cloud that sets the agenda for the national media seems to have moved on to how much of an asshole Mitt Romney was in high school. He bullied a kid; the Washington Post wrote about it; he claimed not to remember the incident, or have ever to discussed his classmates’ sexuality. I read the stories, of course… but I’ve been puzzling over how much they matter.

The focus on candidates’ character over their substance is silly, and lazy, and also useful. If what we really need in a president is a “Great Man” (paging Robert Caro) instead of someone who is able to identify and describe a lovely fruit-basket of beliefs assembled to appeal to 51 percent of voters in selected states that can aggregate 270 electoral votes… if biography matters in our assessment of the candidate’s ability to Get Stuff Done, then the character stuff is useful.

But biography without context is not. (Not to excuse Teen Mitt for being an asshole.) This is a great nugget of a story, when you juxtapose it with the gay marriage announcement. The cynics in us might wonder if it were planned exactly that way. But it doesn’t really tell us anything useful we didn’t already know from Mitt’s refusal to endorse even civil unions.

If I’m concerned about the attention-deficit tone of my news, I need to take a hard look at my information diet. Perhaps, people who don’t pull all their news from the Twitter snark pit (as I do) are indeed taking a moment to savor and luxuriate in the news and analysis of this Important Moment. I am interested and surprised at how the narrative seems to have shifted so quickly; but perhaps that means I just need to reevaluate my news sources. There is news for newsmakers, and news for people. Conscious consumption takes work, more so than it used to. Questions, questions.

UPDATE: On this point… Josh Marshall at TPM suggests the Mitt-was-a-high-school-bully story will persist because his campaign has responded somewhat incompetently. Which is fine, but at its core this critique describes an argument between campaign professionals and campaign reporters, and little more. Again: it is not hard to see that certain parties have much to gain in keeping this nugget on the table, but it is definably a junk-food story to most.

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6 Responses to They Just Don’t Make Big Announcements Like They Used To

  1. Joe Hunter says:

    Character informs substance, therefore not a silly nor a lazy point of focus.

    • eric says:

      I don’t disagree. It is not a replacement, however. It’s much easier to write about character for a mass audience than it is to make tax policy accessible… so we end up hearing much more about character.

  2. Jason says:

    You write that progress on gay marriage will happen state-by-state. But the issue might also reach SCOTUS before the election; it makes sense that O wants to stake out a position on gay marriage long before the court does.

    • eric says:

      Haven’t been following its progress on the judicial track but not sure where the issue is ripe for the Supreme Court. In either case, your comment glosses over the question of whether the real endgame for Obama is legalizing gay marriage or reelection.

  3. Alan says:

    Romney is a lousy liar. As former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm said about Romney claiming credit for the successful bailout of GM and Chrysler, “There are politicians, there are liars and then there is Romney”.

    • eric says:

      He might be lying about his participation in the forced-haircut scheme. Or he might actually be telling the truth: as a Cranbrook student, hassling unfortunate classmates was just such a garden-variety part of his routine that he just can’t remember one specific “prank”–even though it was notably disturbing for several witnesses who seem to have retained detailed memories of the incident over four or five decades. Character lesson: he’s a bad liar or he was just really a dick in high school. Not sure it’s super important which. If campaign reporters are going to spend all their time from now until November trying to catch Romney in lies, this will be a long six months. (I know many reporters who are taking a broader view, however.)

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