This Sunday's New York Times -- fat, varied, making me wonder how I got anything done on the weekends in America when I routinely had all this to read -- had lots of interesting stuff in it. But the most important item was the op-ed by Elizabeth Edwards called "Bowling 1, Health Care 0."
It's one of the rare expressions in print of a sentiment anyone who has covered politics has heard expressed privately countless times. Or at least that I've heard repeatedly when interviewing politicians about how they do their work. This is the politician's frustration with the behavior of the campaign press -- but not for the obvious reason.
The obvious complaint, easily dismissed by reporters, is that press coverage is biased against or "too tough on" this or that candidate. Reporters tell themselves: Hey, we're tough on everybody. You're not strong enough to take it, maybe you should find a different line of work.
The more heartfelt and bitter complaint is about the way press coverage seems biased not against any particular candidate but against the entire process of politics, in the sense that politics includes the public effort to resolve difficult issues. (Medical care, climate change, banking crises, military priorities, etc.) For twenty years I have heard this from frustrated politicians -- Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Carter, Dick Gephardt, Bill Clinton, they may not share a lot of views but they are as one in this frustration. What galls all of them is the way that the incentives created by most coverage bring out the very worst in most politicians, and discourage them from even bothering to try the harder, more "responsible" path. No one says that press incentives turn potential Abraham Lincolns into real-world Tom DeLays. But the incentives push in that direction rather than the reverse.
Active politicians rarely dare say this in public, since they know the same reporters and commentators will be there to talk about them tomorrow and the next day and from then on. For reasons personal (health) and political (husband out of the race), Elizabeth Edwards no longer has to hold anything back. After the jump, a sample of what she said:
Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden’s health care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess, you know Barack Obama’s bowling score. We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap, and we are not choosing a court clerk with primarily administrative duties.
What’s more, the news media cut candidates like Joe Biden out of the process even before they got started. Just to be clear: I’m not talking about my husband. I’m referring to other worthy Democratic contenders. Few people even had the chance to find out about Joe Biden’s health care plan before he was literally forced from the race by the news blackout that depressed his poll numbers, which in turn depressed his fund-raising.
And it’s not as if people didn’t want this information. In focus groups that I attended or followed after debates, Joe Biden would regularly be the object of praise and interest: “I want to know more about Senator Biden,” participants would say.
The problem has been discussed over the years (for example, here), but it's getting worse. And considering the source, this is important and brave testimony, worth reading and circulating