At no other time in recent memory have the media been so relentlessly pummeled in a presidential election. So let’s pile on.
Why? Because if you have diligently followed the presidential campaigns on television, then you have seen hundreds of hours of coverage of candidate after candidate. And, chances are, you still know very little about their actual positions on issues.
The caricatures pile up so fast and thick that we could practically recite them in unison: Hillary Clinton, can’t be trusted; Bernie Sanders, socialist with bad hair; Donald Trump, arrogant bully; Ted Cruz, doesn’t work or play well with others; John Kasich, boring; Jeb Bush, failed nepotist; Chris Christie, too fat; Marco Rubio, too robotic; and so on down the line.
Perhaps, at some level, that’s all we really need to know. As candidates for both parties remind us, if you are a Republican primary voter, then you like all of the Republican candidates better than you like any Democrat.
Same for Democrats. Just take where Sanders stands and move a notch or two to the right to find the position of Hillary Clinton on almost any issue.
But issues sometimes really do matter. And the failure of our most prominent journalists to nail down specific candidates on specific issues points to what may be the greatest failing in American politics today.
For example, our own wan Sen. Steve Daines held a town hall meeting by telephone on Monday night, primarily to hear Montanans tell him how brave and wise he is to oppose the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
Eighty-five percent of those who took part in the town hall agreed in an impromptu poll that the plan was a bad idea. And perhaps it is. Losing those high-paying coal industry jobs would really hurt in a state as small and poor as Montana.
But the American Lung Association has been citing estimates that the Clean Power Plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths nationwide every year. In a country of more than 300 million people, that sounds like a small number. But it is more people than died in the attacks of 9/11.
How many Montana jobs do you suppose Daines would be willing to sacrifice to prevent a 9/11 attack every year? Certainly mine. Perhaps yours?
But one listened in vain through hours of televised debates to hear candidates asked to put a price on saving coal jobs. The answer really does matter.
And, of course, it really matters what candidates think about global warming. Ted Cruz, by all accounts a sterling debater, has been making the case that global warming is imaginary by arguing that the climate has not gotten warmer in the last 18 years.
In the first place, he’s wrong about that. In the second, any good debater would know how to respond when an opponent pulls out one abnormal year to try to argue for or against some ongoing trend.
For example, Felix Mantilla deciphered that short left field wall in Fenway Park well enough to punch out 30 home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1964. He hit a total of 89 home runs in his 11-year career.
Try arguing that Mantilla was a 30-homer-a-year man, and champion debater Cruz would laugh you off the stage. But he knows that he can get away with spreading similar mistruths about global warming because no one will ever call him on it.
And why not? Some of it is the nature of political reporting. Reporters, liberally biased or not, tend to be driven not by ideology but by stories and momentum. They don’t want to know what combination of inner drive, genetic gifts and sheer good fortune made American Pharaoh a Triple Crown winner. They just want to watch the race.
Even Jake Tapper, generally regarded as one of the brighter stars in TV reporting, went through an entire hour of interviews with political candidates and panels of pundits on Sunday on CNN and scarcely even mentioned an actual issue. All horse race, all the time.
Some of the problem also is the nature of political campaigning. Candidates, unless they are very foolish, tightly control reporters’ access. They dodge questions they wish to avoid. They design televised debates that prevent reporters from following through on tough questions.
The result is that we go into elections with tons of polling data, mountains of research on gaffes and missteps and unholy mounds of speculation and navel-gazing about who will win. What we don’t have is much real information.
Three quick examples: Sanders wants a $15 minimum wage. Why $15? Why any minimum wage at all? Fascinating studies both support and reject the minimum wage, but have you heard any of that information surface during this presidential campaign?
Or take the now nearly universal Senate practice of requiring a 60-vote majority to pass almost any legislation. The founders considered such supermajority requirements and rejected them, except in certain special cases.
Constitutional whiz James Madison argued that routinely requiring supermajorities would result in the tyranny of minority rule and would prevent Congress from acting on problems that truly need to be addressed.
Did the founders get it wrong? Has any candidate concerned about President’ Obama’s executive orders made the case that Congress itself is a far greater culprit at flouting the founders’ wisdom?
Or take the 2009 Stimulus Act, one of the two or three most important bills passed during the Obama administration. No Republican voted for it, yet a 2012 survey of leading economists found that 80 percent agreed that the stimulus had made unemployment lower than it otherwise would have been.
Have you heard a peep from a Republican presidential candidate arguing that the economists got it wrong? No peeps noted here.
Yet jobs were at stake—even more jobs than are at stake in Colstrip. It’s a topic that calls for serious discussion, but we shall not have it.