Video: Ooops! Microphone mess-ups

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updated 7/18/2008 1:25:00 PM ET 2008-07-18T17:25:00
Political connections

It may be time to hit the reset button on Campaign 2008. After an exhilarating and historic primary season (especially on the Democratic side), the early stages of the general election campaign between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have been, to use the technical term, awful. The race has been snippy, disconnected, trivialized, and consumed with peripheral arguments. What's more, it has been unworthy of the candidates--and of a country facing serious choices at home and abroad.

Blame for this dismal condition begins right here, with the media. Under that label now jostle traditional newspapers and magazines, the broadcast networks, cable news channels, talk-radio provocateurs, online political tip sheets, and Internet agitators of the Left and Right.

The good news is that this plenitude ensures that anyone seeking discussion of the campaign can find more of it than in previous cycles. Almost everything the candidates or their surrogates say is captured and aired or printed somewhere. Remember the old philosophy question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? That question is moot in the 2008 campaign: No tree falls anywhere without someone there to hear it--and probably record it and upload it onto YouTube.

That is, on balance, positive. The political system benefits from more scrutiny and more information. The problem is what happens next. Every day, by definition, someone--the candidates, or people associated with their campaigns (however tangentially), or a media personality--says something slightly more outrageous, more offensive, or just flat-out more stupid than everyone else. That comment--the tree that hits the ground hardest that day--is then set upon by the Internet publications, the online activists, and the cable and radio talk-meisters and shredded for 24 or 48 hours, until the next slip of the lip slides into its place. This flub-of-the-day coverage has been most pronounced in the newer online and on-air media (both cable and radio), but even the traditional print and network outlets haven't been immune to its pull.

Candidate Brain TrustsThe result has been to convert the campaign into a bloopers reel. This is becoming the Year of the Gaffe. This week, the media were consumed with whether The New Yorker magazine went too far with its cover parodying conservative portrayals of Obama and his wife, Michelle, as vaguely un-American. Last week, the media frantically debated whether McCain adviser Phil Gramm went too far in his brusque comments about the economy--and whether Jesse Jackson went too far by threatening Obama's, er, capacity to procreate. Not long before that were the Wesley Clark and Charles Black gaffes, and the Mike Huckabee, Jay Rockefeller, and Geraldine Ferraro gaffes--not to mention intermittent gaffes by Obama and McCain themselves. The list of people in this campaign who have spent 24 hours deeply, deeply, apologizing for something they've said may soon be longer than the list of people who have not.

The candidates have been victimized by this process. But they've abetted it, too. Each has seized upon any blunder by the other or by one of his supporters. More fundamentally, each has encouraged the small-minded atmosphere of petty disagreement by contesting so much of what the other says. Neither candidate can deliver a speech without the other side insisting that he is hypocritical, flip-flopping, or misinformed. In effect, each campaign has decided to jam the other's radio signal.

The contenders have displayed some admirable instincts in this campaign. Most important, each has pledged to pursue national reconciliation if elected, and has underscored that promise by courting audiences that their party usually shuns (as McCain did by speaking this week to the NAACP and Obama has done by campaigning extensively in GOP-leaning red states). But both are capable of a much better campaign than they are now offering America.

The candidates can't control a media community replacing perspective with bombast as the Internet/talk culture of conflict expands its influence. But each candidate would serve the country's interest, and ultimately his own, by focusing more on explaining his own plans (many of which are thoughtful and provocative) and less on denigrating his rival's. In today's feverish media environment, it wouldn't be easy for Obama and McCain to lift the campaign to a more productive and substantive level, but so far they're not trying nearly hard enough.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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