Even before Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) refused to say whether or not she voted for Obama in a newspaper editorial board interview Thursday, her campaign had come under attack from conservatives for allegedly misrepresenting its positions. Notorious viral video maker James O'Keefe targeted Grimes earlier this month, sending staff to her campaign offices and interviewing people about Grimes's position on coal. It paid off, by O'Keefe's lax standards: A number of people that were interviewed insisted to people they thought were sympathetic that Grimes didn't actually support the coal industry.
That would be an enormous political liability in Kentucky if it were true. There's no evidence that it is. Grimes has repeatedly offered her support for the industry and opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency on it. The campaign's response to the video was simple and straightforward. The people on the video aren't actually Grimes staffers but volunteers, and the mineworkers' union was confident enough in her position to endorse her candidacy. For those opposing her, though, the O'Keefe video was validation of what they'd assumed: Grimes is lying about her true beliefs to get elected. Typical politician.
In Kansas, the mystery is of a different sort. Greg Orman is running for the Senate as an independent, and has said that, if elected, he'll caucus with whichever party has the majority. (That's probably not much consolation to the Republicans, who'd much rather keep Pat Roberts, the Republican senator that's already caucusing with them.) At the National Journal, Rebecca Nelson points out that this is not the only issue on which Orman is hedging. "He's vowed to change Washington, but hasn't expounded on how," she writes. "Playing both sides of the fence on the Affordable Care Act, he has said he would've voted against the legislation while vacillating on whether he'd work to repeal it. And his stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline is undetermined: He's said he doesn't have enough information to decide either way."
But it hasn't mattered. "Orman's ambivalence hasn't hurt him," Nelson points out, given that he's leading or even in the polls.
There are a lot of factors at play here. There is increased polarization not only among politicians, but in the American public, which makes errors or question marks from a candidate the sorts of thing that spread much more quickly and furiously than they might have in the past. There's the general distrust of politicians that, while always high, has dug deeper into the ocean floor since 2001. And there's increased distrust of the media as well, as the proliferation of outlets and the ability of individuals to reach a wide audience has eroded the strength of traditional outlets.
That ability to communicate outside of the media is an important part of modern politics. In the eyes of a political candidate, a flawless campaign is one in which he or she can run his or her ads and send out mail, round people up for events on Facebook, weigh in on important subjects in 140 characters or less. The modern campaign has been sanded down for easy digestion, and things like tough interviews or debates are, if anything, relics of the past, not contributors to modern success.
Grimes got bad press out of her endorsement interview with the Courier-Journal on Thursday. What would she have lost if she hadn't done it at all? The paper likely wouldn't have endorsed her and would certainly have chastised her. It seems very safe to assume that the paper's readership also overlaps heavily with the likely voter pool during this midterm (by which we mean "older"). But for other candidates observing with an eye toward future races, were those negative effects for Grimes worth the risk?
Every voter is his own editorial board these days, with an interview process for a candidate that is a one-sided conversation. There are no questions to candidates, only well-crafted responses from them: Here's what I'll do for Kansas; here's what I want to say about guns. With a few, often local, exceptions, there aren't media outlets powerful enough to force responses to any other questions.
In Kansas, Orman doesn't seem terribly worried about being vague. And he's gotten away with it. Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 in part because he was a blank slate of a politician with a limited track record. (Who could standf against "hope" and "change"?) Progressives saw his views — such as they were — as progressive; moderates as moderate. Voters wrote their own vision for what he truly felt and what he would do once in office onto the Obama they voted for. (Or in Grimes' case: maybe voted for.) The individual editorial boards spoke.
Put another way: People see what they want to see. Orman gets good support from Democrats because they read cues that reinforce their predispositions. The volunteers at Grimes' headquarters, good Democrats all we presume, know that she doesn't actually support the coal industry, because for many of them that's what they want to see; her opponents want to see that, too. It's not like this is even a blank-slate question, given that Grimes has repeatedly said she backs coal. It's just that people are used to writing their own editorials.
Journalist James Risen, facing criminal trial for refusing to name the source of a leak, told an audience in Maine on Sunday that President Obama hates the press. Politicians are supposed to hate the press. They're not supposed to be indifferent to it. But since they often are, every voter gets to write his or her own version of the candidate they want. And that offers a whole different set of problems.