This year’s presidential campaign could be fascinating if reporters push Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to answer the tough questions.

This is a fascinating campaign—as long as we push the candidates to have the messy conversation America needs.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.


Sasha, I agree with you on the narrowcasting of political convention messages. That’s why I thought Romney had to emerge with a single sentence that would live on after the balloons were in the landfill. You would know what the scientists say about the power of messages, but I wonder if there isn’t some benefit still to narrative. What that does is help people puzzle their way back to the essential meaning of a candidacy. The narrative links their views of things to stories they already know. So when Clint Eastwood said “it’s halftime in America” in that Super Bowl ad, that was a narrative that felt like it worked. Good narratives are sent through single sentences that live on. I feel (key word) like that is still more powerful than a direct appeal that carefully targets women or some other group. 

But what I really want to know from you are your thoughts on how the Democrats are using this meeting to register, motivate, and massage their ground game. Democrats say they won Colorado in part because of all the work they were able to do in 2008 at the convention. Is there a chance that helps in North Carolina? Because the problem with Democrats is getting them out to vote, and they’ve got three days to work on that here in a concentrated way? 

I’m going to weigh in on something else here for a minute: Politico has a story about how all the reporters hate this election. I don’t agree and am kinda puzzled by it. The campaigns do feel smaller and cheaper than before. It’s not just that the candidates are walled off from genuine inquiry and their strategists are obsessed with slap fights on Twitter. Neither candidate seems very brave. Romney hinted that he might be bold by picking Paul Ryan, but then Ryan just turned into an energetic attack dog and gave up his posture as an ideas guy. The president’s campaign has long been founded on simply disqualifying Romney. Both campaigns are mirthless. I sympathize with the desire to throw open a window and freshen up the room a bit. 

But the thing is: We control the window. This is an interesting campaign! Big issues are at stake. They always are, but this time we’ve got a chance to talk about how we reorient the relationship between people and their government. The programs of the New Deal need a redo: There will be winners and losers. Who decides which is which? The promises of American life need a big, messy conversation.

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People are really worried about this country, and our politicians are incapable of dealing with the problems of the day. Given all of this, why would we let the politicians dictate the terms of the campaign? That’s what this complaint about this campaign implies: that the politicians are the only actors. We could go off and write stories that have nothing to do with the diminished sideshows the campaigns put on every day. There’s plenty of material. Some people are doing those stories, but the obvious problem is that those aren’t the stories that get viewers or readers talking or fire their interest. The daily sideshow stories are what people talk about.

I’ve long wanted to put together a list of 10 stories, documentaries, et cetera that every voter has to read before they can claim this campaign is shallow. I’m trying to put a few things on that list, and we’ll see if when they run any voters want to bother with them.

By the time we get to the campaign it would be possible for the press to reclaim the election by saying, “Here are the questions that should be answered but aren’t being answered. Here are the dodges the campaigns will offer in response to those questions and why they are insufficient.” This is what the debates are presumably going to be about. If the candidates chicken out and don’t answer them, then fine. Seems like an insult to the people you’re trying to get to vote for you, but insulting the intelligence of the voters seems to be low on the campaigns’ worry list this year. But there are ways to ignore the campaign as its being run and cover the story that’s actually out there.

Strong letter to follow.