I’ve seen so many pictures of President Obama and Governor Romney that I could identify key facial features from memory. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen President Obama’s salt and pepper hair, the mole to the left of his nose, the way that he presses his index finger and thumb together when he wants to make an emphatic point. Nor can I properly recount the countless images I’ve seen of Governor Romney with his gelled hair, his nearly trademarked plaid dress shirt, gripping a mic and pointing with his index finger.
I haven’t been spying on the President and his presumptive Republican rival, but I do stumble across pictures of them several times a day when I’m perusing the daily news. The images are often paired with political articles with the latest from either candidate’s campaign, and more often they not they capture their more dignified moments. President Obama will grin magnanimously before a crowd of supporters in a small Midwestern town, Governor Romney purposefully surveys a factory while wearing a hardhat and plastic goggles.
Partisan sites show less flattering pictures, but I come across them with nearly the same frequency. A photo of President Obama on a far right blog shows the commander in chief grinning, but the caption below will blast him for dismal economic numbers. A far left site will show Romney shaking hands with suited businessmen, and perhaps the webmasters Photoshop egregious dollars signs for good measure.
The Presidential Pageant
The endless deluge of images and photo ops of either candidate highlights the shallow nature of this year’s presidential election. Bloggers, pundits, and analysts, and campaign staff of all political leanings have scrutinized President Obama and Governor Romney every day for years (years!), and yet the nature of their strategies and concrete plans for bettering this country’s future have yet to surface.
Rest assured that there’s no shortage of election coverage—if you want to call it that—but there’s not nearly enough discussion over the substantive issues that could make the difference in the lives of millions of Americans. Articulate and informative conversations about unemployment, economic recovery, and healthcare have taken a backseat to reactionary topics like campaign contributions, erroneous poll data, and the “political gaffes” of either candidate.
Let me preface the rest of this piece by acknowledging that I’m well aware of idealistic and somewhat naïve nature of this rant. What I’m saying isn’t necessarily breaking news: the permanent campaign exists and it is fueled by negative (and sometimes personal) attacks from either candidate, attacks that often make or break a voter’s perception of them. I understand that the echo chamber of political commentary won’t change overnight just as partisan politics don’t look like they will improve anytime soon.
I will rant nonetheless, if just because I can’t take another face-off style photo of Obama and Romney, especially when it introduces an article about their comparative likeability.
Partisan Politics and Policy Confusion
In my mind, the partisan politics that dominate the media’s election coverage and the press releases from both presidential campaigns only confuses potential voters. How can a voter possibly become informed in a political atmosphere where each side literally contradicts the other’s claim on just about every policy point? How can President Obama be the socialist, tax raising ostensible tyrant as depicted by the far right conservatives if he’s the middle-class promoting, tax cutting champion that his campaign purports him to be?
Of course each party is trying to minimize the strengths and amplify the weaknesses of the opposing party. Many members of the Democratic Party vilify Mitt Romney with as much fervor as do the far right conservatives do to President Obama. To some extent everyone should know what they’re getting into when they hear a politician talk about the opposing candidate. How else are they do contrast their views against those of their opponent?
But it’s a far different matter when people inject partisan politics into major policies that affect the entire country. Take the Affordable Care Act, for example. The sweeping health care legislation passed by Congress in 2009 came as both a victory for progressives and a rallying cry for conservatives. The law was an easy target for conservative candidates to stir up voters against Obama during the 2010 midterm elections and subsequent Republican presidential candidates, who pointed to the legislature as the epitome of federal spending gone out of control and government overreach into private businesses.
Presumptive republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined those who rejected the entirety of the Affordable Care Act (more popularly known as ‘Obamacare’), the reasons for which can be read on his campaign website. But Mitt Romney’s own record on health care hardly matches with his partisan-fueled rhetoric. It’s widely known that the many aspects of the Affordable Care Act—including the much fought over “individual mandate—were inspired by comprehensive health care reform that Romney instituted in Massachusetts when he was governor of the state.
The point here is that Romney played a vital role (albeit inadvertent) in shaping the policy that was just recently upheld by the Supreme Court. That fact alone proves that health care shouldn’t be reduced to a simply party line of “Obamacare is bad,” even if it is a bloated and sprawling piece of legislature. The partisan bickering minimizes the importance of such legislation—parts of which have benefited many people since its passage, myself included—to the point where most voters won’t even know what to think of it; they’ll either follow the advice of their party or tune out completely. We need a more substantial discussion about how the legislation affects voters for reasons both positive and negative.
The Obama campaign and Democratic Party plays is no stranger to partisan politicking either. Rather than address the stagnant employment numbers and sluggish economy, the Obama campaign has launched a series of attack ads targeting Romney’s vast personal wealth. The latest of these stories involves the Obama campaign clamoring for the release of Romney’s tax information and information regarding alleged offshore accounts holding parts of Romney’s assets. While one could argue that the nature of Romney’s financial standing is relevant to his candidacy, it’s hardly a matter worth putting at the top of a presidential campaign agenda. The Obama campaign has kept up the heat on this one issue for months. Talking about how much money is in the Romney fortune will hardly help people looking for answers to problems that plague our economy, but the Obama campaigns continues to make it a newsworthy issue.
Romney counters that such inquiries about his finances are merely distractions from more important conversations like the economy, and I’d agree with him if his campaign wasn’t so busy engaging in the same partisan politics. Romney’s wealth is a rallying cry for progressives just as much as the blanket term “Obamacare” is for conservatives. Neither subject leads to a meaningful political conversation.
Media: You’re Not Helping
It’s not as if these distracting arguments appear out of thin air. Media outlets of all stripes are responsible for covering and re-covering the shallow stories that dominate the current campaign season discourse. Far too few journalists, bloggers, and analysts are writing material that asks the hard questions about the issues facing the presidential candidates. The wrong phrase uttered by either side of the campaign trail could result in days upon days of fruitless political commentary as analysts parse its meaning. For a more ridiculous example, I’ll refer you to the now infamous etch-a-sketch incident thought to damage the Romney campaign back when there were more contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Note that Romney is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Bloomberg recently published an article by the journalist Ezra Klein that discusses the harmful nature of media’s political involvement. Klein explains how the media often takes out of context phrases uttered by politicians and their staff, commenting on a single controversial remark that inevitably distracts from the actual point that was made around it. If President Obama were to misspeak noticeably during a speech on foreign policy, that “gaffe” would be the story reported by the media, rather than the policy points within the actual speech. Every popular story about such distractions is merely another missed opportunity to inform readers about salient facts.
One of the biggest distractions perpetuated by many media outlets is the opinion poll, specifically polls that try to predict the winner in a matchup between the two candidates. Various polling centers will release data that show either candidate with an edge over the other, though the contest is invariably reduced to a tossup due to the margin of error. Just a few days ago The Washington Post shared the results of a poll that put the two candidates in a dead heat, whereas more recently CNN published their own poll that revealed Obama had a 3 point lead among the national electorate.
See the problem here?
Even if a major publication came out with a poll that depicted either candidate with a 10 point lead over the other, the results can’t carry much weight. The election isn’t being held today or tomorrow or whenever the polls were conducted—it’s on November 6th. Anything could happen to change the dynamics of the race during that time. If news outlets continue to anticipate the likely success or failure of a candidate—even if its just by a few percentage points—how will that influence voter turnout? If a registered Republican voter continues to read about opinion polls predicting a win from Obama, would they be less likely to vote, resigned to defeat?
I think its fair to say that poll data should not be the proof of a candidate’s electability. Voters would be much better off if journalists started reporting on more substantive policy divides between the candidates, rather than forecasting the unknowable.
What’s a voter to do?
As I’m writing this piece, I find myself refreshing my Google News feed to see if there’s any breaking political drama that I can insert in here. The most popular topic is the polling data I mentioned earlier from The Washington Post that shows the candidates are equally likely to win the presidency as of this moment. I wonder what would happen if the topic of the day instead focuses on the differences between the candidates foreign policies, or their lack of initiative when it comes to offering new plans for speeding the country’s economic recovery?
Instead I’ll likely check Google News tomorrow to find a rebuttal from Romney about regarding his offshore bank accounts, or another attack ad from the Obama campaign that further vilifies Romney as an out of touch millionaire. Hundreds of journalists and bloggers will write on either subject with enough analysis and point/counterpoints to last a week, and I’ll see just as many headshots of both candidates looking stately and strong. The voters won’t be any better off in terms of learning about their candidates and the issues at hand, but it will make for a good show.
Better yet, I might ignore the political news tomorrow and save myself the trouble. What about you?