Champs of Clatter
By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page A19
Almost everyone in the news business loves political campaigns, but not me. It's true that campaigns are fun, dramatic and significant. Covering these slugfests blends sports reporting and instant history. Meanwhile, we can flatter ourselves that we're doing the central job of a free press: making democracy work. The only drawback is that we're supposed to be in the truth-telling business, and political campaigns draw us inexorably into a labyrinth of lies and deceits.
Political campaigns are exercises in exuberant irrationality. People say things that they know are untrue; indeed, if they believed some of these things, they ought to be barred from office. But the media treat these routine untruths as respectable statements that ought to be analyzed and debated. My favorite example involves jobs. George Bush and John Kerry argue over who'd do best at job creation. The truth is that presidents create few jobs. Their policies may influence the economy over the long run. But at any moment, jobs depend mainly on the business cycle.
Every phony job boast ought to inspire the following qualification: "Most economists regard these claims as absurd." But the media cannot be dismissive without appearing arrogant, partisan or both. So we let these rhetorical stupidities stand. Some political reporters (who, as a class, are generally uninterested in policy, although they're remarkably well-informed and smart about politics) may not even recognize them as stupidities. Unfortunately, this deceit is only one of many.
The media pretend that Bush and Kerry are debating big issues, when they aren't. To be sure, some big issues are automatically engaged: Iraq and terrorism, for example. But here differences mainly involve style and competence, not substance. (See, for example, Kerry's July 4 op-ed in The Post. It has few big disagreements with Bush.) Beyond security, Bush and Kerry quietly agree not to debate some of the big issues facing the country. To wit: (a) baby boomers' retirement costs; (b) immigration; and (c) China. You won't hear much about these, because candor would offend millions of voters.
Oh, Kerry might suggest that Bush threatens Social Security and Medicare benefits (a standard Democratic tactic); and Bush may try to win votes for enacting a Medicare drug benefit (a program that makes the long-term budget outlook worse). But both will avoid the real problem: The costs of Social Security and Medicare will ultimately swamp the budget. Retirees and near-retirees over 50 don't want to hear that. Nor do they want to hear that benefit cuts -- higher eligibility ages, smaller payments -- are the surest way to relieve those pressures.
Immigration is a similar political swamp. The present system is broken. It keeps out people we ought to admit (foreign scholars and students) and admits people we ought to keep out (illegals). But remedies are contentious: tough sanctions against employers for hiring illegals, and national identity cards. Moreover, any critical mention of immigration might upset Latino voters. As for China, its economic expansion is already curbing America's global power and influence. But every president since Jimmy Carter has encouraged China's economic liberalization. What's there to say?
It's easier to say nothing, and the media condone the silence. Is there an alternative? You cannot write a story every day that begins: "George Bush [or John Kerry] yesterday refused to discuss [name your favorite issue]." Worse, we treat their proposals as serious when they're often campaign slogans.
Kerry's main budget proposal, for example, is to repeal Bush's tax cuts for those with incomes over $200,000 and use the money to subsidize health insurance for millions. This is standard populism that excites Democrats: Tax the few, distribute to the many. As budget policy, though, it's dubious. It would accept the existing trajectory of deficits, raise federal spending -- again, worsening the long-term problem -- and make the budget less controllable. Even if this were a good idea, it stands little chance of being passed by a Congress divided between Republicans and Democrats. No matter. The media cast Kerry's plan as a genuine choice, whose fate rests on the election.
Of course, Bush's budget sloganeering is no different. He delights Republicans by promising not to raise taxes, even though federal taxes -- as a share of the economy -- are the lowest since the early 1950s. His pledge might be fine if he had cut spending, but he hasn't. The contradiction may be politically untenable. Too many Democrats and some Republicans are skeptical. Bush may have to accept tax increases to make other tax cuts permanent. Still, the media treat his rhetoric as the likely outcome of a second term.
The media aren't keeping the candidates honest. But I doubt we can do much better. In a democracy, people are entitled to their delusions. Campaigns respond to what voters want (or don't want) to hear. What they apparently want to hear now is that the other guy is dishonest, inept and dangerous. Fine. Democracy is an imperfect process. Presidential elections are less about specific agendas than about character, trust and basic instincts. Americans already know how Bush and Cheney govern. Now Americans will judge the character and instincts of John Kerry and Edwards under the stresses of the campaign. People will decide.
Probably this is the best democracy can do: a common-sense judgment culled from much exaggeration, simplification and distortion. We in the media will enjoy ourselves. But those of us who think we're a powerful force for clarity and candor ought to sober up. Mostly, we're part of the clatter.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company