New York Times published some commentary yesterday with the Orwellian title, "In Losing the Midterms, There may be Winning." This seems as good an example as any of what is wrong with political commentary these days. The point of the article is that President Obama might have a better chance of being re-elected in 2012 if the Republicans take Congress, using as examples both the Clinton presidency and the Truman presidency. These presidents were able to secure re-election by, in Truman's case, running against what he called the "do-nothing Congress," and in Clinton's case, fighting a Congress that literally shut the federal government down and spent most of its efforts in wasted investigations of the Executive branch. Now the article does not suggest that this is what President Obama actually wants, and in fact acknowledges that he is doing his utmost to prevent such a result, but it quotes some consultants who suggest that even more acrimonious relations with a completely hostile Congress might be what the President should want. Maybe it's understandable for a campaign consultant to look for the silver lining in the prospect of the kind of disgraceful Congressional performances we experienced in the Truman or Clinton eras, but it is hard to see how the rest of us would be cheered by the prospect of a president at war with a failing Congress.
Wouldn't it be more responsible for the media to be encouraging a substantive debate about the issues that are at stake in this election, rather than engaging in speculation about the election's effects on potential candidates two years from now? Regardless of our political affiliation, shouldn't we be more interested in talking about how to resolve problems facing the nation, rather than talking about which party might benefit from an increase in gridlock in the capital? And granted that politicians are legitimately interested in re-election, shouldn't we give them the benefit of the doubt that re-election may not be the only thing they are interested in? I for one would like to see more focus on how the Republicans actually propose to solve pressing problems, given that the Republicans are trying to persuade the American people that they should be given control of Congress. I would love to see the media making serious efforts to clear up some widespread public misconceptions, rather than taking what the candidates say at face value, and focusing on who is up or down in the polls.
Instead, all we get is coverage of politics as if it were a sporting event. This kind of discussion just encourages people to prefer arguing about problems to solving them. It reminds me of the decline of serious criticism in the entertainment world. It seems to me that we used to see more substantive discussion of the merits of films and music. Now all we hear about are the grosses. There's nothing wrong with a little public interest in inside baseball, but when that becomes the overriding focus of our attention, we might just lose sight of the issues that are really at stake, just as we might have less appreciation of the performances in the movies we saw last weekend because we are so preoccupied with which one is number one at the box office.
In politics, it seems to me that the question whether the government can function and accomplish anything useful, might be slightly more important than the fortunes of any particular candidate. We should want a functioning government, rather than one at war with itself. The media should be demanding that Republican candidates explain how they are going to make government work for the people's benefit if they gain control of Congress, rather than relishing the prospect that they are going to cause the system to grind to a halt.
(Paul Antonson illustration)