Behold the Snookization of American politics.
The Middle East is in turmoil. The economy is struggling. Mitt Romney is on “Live! with Kelly and Michael,” talking Snooki and his bedtime wear (“as little as possible”).
The number of undecided voters is vanishingly small. The remaining ones tend to be the lowest of low-information voters, only intermittently tuned in to politics, if at all. These folks are not watching “Meet the Press” or calibrating candidates’ positions on optimal tax rates. They are, predominantly, women.
So both presidential campaigns find themselves trolling in unlikely and, to be blunt, demeaning places, answering demeaning questions.
Thus President Obama sitting down with the ladies of “The View,” appearing on “Entertainment Tonight” and opening up to “People” magazine. Last month, the president was on an FM station in Albuquerque dealing with such doozies as “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” and “What’s your favorite song to work out to?” A host, giggling, announced, “I just flirted with the president.”
The latter-day Edward R. Murrows of “Live!” covered the gamut from Kelly Ripa’s “Who hogs the blankets?” to Michael Strahan’s “Honey Boo Boo or Snooki?” (The former, I have since learned, is a toddler beauty queen with her own reality show.)
Romney reflected an uncanny familiarity with the “Jersey Shore” star. “I’m kind of a Snooki fan,” he said. “Look how tiny she’s gotten. She’s lost weight. She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.” Impressively, Romney manages to sound all “Leave It to Beaver” even when discoursing on “Jersey Shore.”
Candidates’ attraction to popular culture isn’t new. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” during the 1960 campaign. In 1968, Nixon did his “sock-it-to-me” cameo on “Laugh-In.”
In 1992, to much tut-tutting from Serious Folks, Bill Clinton famously appeared on Arsenio Hall’s show, wearing sunglasses and playing the sax. This course was laid out in a memo by strategists Mandy Grunwald and Frank Greer, advising that “in tandem with our high-road, serious speech effort, we ought to design a parallel track of pop-culture national and local media efforts.” To those who “say these kinds of things are ‘unpresidential,’ ” the strategists responded, “Bull. This is how people get information.”
Yes — and too much of it. I was at the MTV town hall in 1994 when Clinton, by then president, was asked the fateful question: Boxers or briefs? In the moment before Clinton chose to reply, I remember hoping that he would demur, maybe even take the young woman to task for her disrespectful cheekiness.
Obama, when his turn in the underwear spotlight came as a candidate in 2008, did slightly better. “I don’t answer those humiliating questions,” he said — and then could not resist adding, “But whichever one it is, I look good in ’em.”
Meanwhile, such silliness has leached into supposedly serious news. At a Republican debate last year, CNN’s John King peppered the candidates with such momentous choices as, “Elvis or Johnny Cash?” “ ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or ‘American Idol’?” and “deep dish or thin crust?”
Look, I don’t think all politics has to be as serious as a panel at the Brookings Institution. The want-to-have-a-beer-with-him question has its place; choosing a president means inviting someone into our living rooms — or, these days, onto our laptops — for the next four years. If we crave a sense of the person underneath the policy positions, that is entirely understandable.
But his pajama preferences? Look at Romney’s face when this question is posed. “Really? Really?” he asks chidingly. You can see the thought bubble: Must I really endure this?
Maybe this development is better than the alternative of voters proceeding on the basis of even less knowledge. At least the ones who see Romney on “Live!” may hear some policy amid the fluff.
“Some of these people do vote, and it’s better if they get a little substance, even if it’s not the good democratic citizen Aristotle imagines,” says Harvard professor Matthew Baum. His studies of candidates’ appearances on daytime talk shows suggest that politically inattentive voters who watched them tended to do better at picking candidates in line with their views than those who didn’t watch.
Okay, but at the cost of turning politics into infotainment, emphasis on the -tainment.
Honey Boo Boo or Snooki? Bread or circuses? I guess we know the answer.