Every few months, pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell write a column that combines the conventional wisdom of the moment with the thudding prose of a Cliff Bar nutrition panel. “The Missing Campaign Policy Debate,” which went live at Politico on Monday, hasn’t generated the same buzz as “The Hillary Moment.” But both columns made the same banal point. We’re getting a “divisive” campaign, not a serious campaign. Woe, woe is the Republic.
“There is little talk of the need to rein in entitlements, balance the budget and reduce the debt and deficit,” wailed the pundits. After Obama issued an executive order that de-emphasized deportations of younger undocumented immigrants, he gave a speech “without putting forth any broad set of policies to deal with immigration reform.”
Watch out for phrases like “little talk.” Who defines what’s a “little talk” in a presidential campaign? Columnists, that’s who! Schoen and Caddell, like Tom Friedman, make a strange strategic choice to follow the arc of a campaign without burrowing into the candidates’ plans. That’s not new, exactly. Matt Taibbi, who has been mocking Friedman’s glibness for half a decade, wrote last month that Friedman’s “analysis is to bloggers now what dick jokes are to standup comics.”
What is new is a sense, among reporters, that the scolds are right. Also in Politico a couple of weeks ago, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns argued that 2012 is the “smallest” campaign in memory. “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter,” they wrote, “all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time.” My colleague John Dickerson, who’s covering his fifth presidential campaign, stacks Mitt Romney’s available policy plans against George W. Bush’s plans. The second stack is taller.
But the evidence of a stupid campaign is not prima facie evidence that the entire campaign is stupid. Here’s a useful way of looking at 2012. There is a Twitter Track of election news, a mardi gras of gaffes and Web ads and verbal flubs. Headlines on the Twitter Track usually involve phrases like “fires back at,” or “unloads on.” And then there is a Reality Track of election news, about the policies that the next president and Congress will probably enact. These headlines usually have numbers in them, so—look, no offense—you might have missed a few.
(Side note: Politico’s Burns, who tweets at @aburnspolitico, has turned the shaming of lazy campaign journalism into a low-paying side gig. “Here’s a headline for all your future Joe Walsh stories,” he wrote, after the Republican congressman made his umpteenth cheeky comment about his opponent’s military service. “ ‘Marginal congressman with virtually no path to reelection says something off-key.’ ”)
The Twitter Track is constantly humming and distracting, and the campaigns keep it that way. The Romney campaign does this literally, with faux accounts that take advantage of the latest micro-story, or by piloting a campaign bus around Obama events for no purpose other than buzz-feeding. We have lived through weeks where Twitter Track stories led the news for cycle after cycle.
By nature, the Twitter Track story is meaningless, frothy, and forgettable. Look back to the “Mommy War” that broke out after the GOP decided to pretend that Hilary Rosen, a former top recording industry lobbyist and frequent White House visitor, was speaking for the Obama campaign when she was dismissive of Ann Romney. (You can still buy “MOMS Drive the Economy” bumper stickers from the Romney campaign.)
That was in mid-April. A Fox News poll conducted before the contretemps gave Obama a 49-41 lead over Romney among female voters. A Fox News poll conducted right afterward—one that fed voters questions about the story—gave Obama a barely-changed 47-42 lead with women. (Romney had just scared Rick Santorum out of the race, and that played into the poll changes, too.) Now, move on to this month, and Fox News gives Obama a 46-39 lead with women. How did voters process the Mommy War? They got distracted by something interesting.
Compare that to the Obama campaign’s focus on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital years. The Reality Track story, told to swing state voters with negative TV ads, was that Romney got rich, with little personal risk, from the dismantling of manufacturing firms. “They promised us a health care package,” said an angry worker in one Priorities USA ad. “They promised us they’d maintain our retirement program. And those were the first two things that disappeared.”
On the Twitter Track, the Bain story played out as a fight between surrogates. Cory Booker criticized the tone of the campaign. Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell gave normative praise of Romney’s business skills. “Will Obama’s attacks on Bain backfire?” asked CNN. The Twitter Track was obscuring everybody’s view of those negative ads. This week, in their read of the swing state polls, reporters like Rick Klein and Mark Murray pointed out that the ads worked. If you lived in a swing state, you were around twice as likely as not to think of Romney’s business experience and start dry-heaving.
Isn’t that type of ad exactly the kind of crap that the scolding columnists warned us about? That’s a debate, sure, but Romney has urged voters to look to his private sector years—“I’m a business guy!” —and understand how he’ll govern. In his more specific speeches, he’s endorsed the House-passed, Paul Ryan-written budget—which is full of details—and promised public sector freezes and lay-offs.
The risk for the hand-wringing columnist is conflation. It’s assuming that a negative attack is, by definition, a substance-free attack. That’s not always true. Because of the limits of media, it might seem true. Take the example that Schoen and Caddell used—the pseudo-DREAM executive order. After he issued it, Obama appeared at the National Association of Elected and Appointed Legislators and gave a speech without a “broad set of policies to deal with immigration reform.”
Sure, the president spent more time on applause lines than on bullet-pointed policy. This was because he told the audience what his policy was, then moved on. That’s how speeches work. He had supported the “comprehensive immigration reform” introduced by John McCain and Ted Kennedy in the Bush years, and voted for it. Do a little work (Bing, or Google, or that Jeeves site if it’s still around) and you can see what was in it. Obama described how his pseudo-DREAM would work, and reiterated that he wanted the full DREAM—the version choked out by a 2010 filibuster—to pass. There is absolutely nothing stopping a voter or pundit from checking the Reality Track and schooling him- or herself on what a candidate, and his filibuster-empowered Congress, may try and do in January 2013. The campaign is just as substantive as you want it to be.