The presidential campaign of 2012 is in full swing. It seems as though the campaign of 2008 had barely ended before the new campaign began. Sadly, it’s a sign of our times, and of some basic weaknesses in our political system.
Who’s calling the shots? Why do we get immersed in the campaign of 2012 so early? Why can’t we wait to analyze the actions and the competence of the incumbents before we start following the movements of the challengers, the wannabees or the dropouts?
It has something to do with the power of the press. But it represents a major shift in the way campaigns have been waged and covered.
“The game begins earlier than ever,” historian Harold Holzer told me. “Fifty years ago, Jack Kennedy announced he was running for president in 1960 and got elected the same year. Now, it’s an endless cycle. It seems that the next campaign for president starts six months after the previous one ended.”
Holzer adds:”It’s great for the media, great for the advertisers. But the process has no end. It explains why nothing gets done. Everyone is in campaign mode all the time and there’s little time to do the jobs they were elected for.”
A political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, points out: “In the old days, the political bosses decided on the candidates. Now it’s not about what they’ve done, but rather, how they run. The entertainment factor is important.”
Much of the news coverage in a campaign dwells on how much money a candidate raises and who his or her advisers are.
The smart people who give their opinions incessantly on cable TV nominate whom they like. And then they watch eagerly as the mud wrestling begins.
Years ago, there was a great political reporter at the Washington Post. His name was David Broder and he didn’t cover a campaign behind his desk. He would examine trends and the doings of the big shots. But his best work came when he went out in the field and actually interviewed voters about their concerns.
I watched him work. Broder didn’t believe that he, as a reporter, could possibly cover a campaign without hearing from the voters. The promises of candidates were less important to him than the views of the people who would decide.
The entertainment factor was quite apparent the other day when Donald Trump had a pizza with Sarah Palin at a restaurant in Times Square.
They ate up the pizza and the attention they were getting from photographers. It wasn’t exactly a meeting of great intellectual titans.
“She didn’t ask me to run,” said Trump, “but I’ll tell you, she’s a terrific woman.”
Politics 2011. It was a happening -- and it should be on the agenda of the pundits in the days to come. A gustatory summit meeting. Pizza politics. It will quicken the political appetites of the wise guys who comment on politics.
But it isn’t likely to stir the appetites of voters who face critical economic problems in their personal lives, and may not relate to all the baloney that passes in some quarters as political discourse. It would be nice if we had political discourse of the stature of the Lincoln-Douglas debates a century and a half ago.
I fear we underestimate the intelligence of the voters. And our candidates -- or potential candidates -- are in a fix. They can’t lead us out of the mediocrity that engulfs us. They’re drowning in it, same as the rest of us.