finally, campaign coverage with substance

During a campaign, our job as citizens is to decide whom to vote for. Two questions are relevant: What do the candidates propose? And what kind of people are they? The job of the press is to help us answer these two questions. As James Madison wrote, the purpose of the press is “canvassing the merits and measures of public men.”

Instead, we mainly see (even in the best newspapers, and even after 15 years of criticism) a steady stream of stories about campaign tactics, voters’ opinions, the electoral process, and comments that candidates make about one another. I suppose politicians’ tactics and remarks can shed some light on their personal “merits,” but not much. (Even a great potential president could campaign badly or say something inappropriate on the campaign trail). Worse than irrelevant, these stories are harmful, because they suggest that we should not vote for those candidates who currently appear to be doing badly in the horse race. This makes political news a self-fulfilling prophesy; it denies voters the power to choose for themselves. Witness, for example, Elizabeth Rosenthal’s recent front-page story on Senator John Edwards, which is all about how poor his chances are. Rosenthal says nothing that helps us assess Edwards’ “merits” or his “measures.”

Today, at last, the Times runs an article succinctly comparing the economic plans of the nine Democratic presidential contenders.

I’m a policy wonk and a news junkie, but I still found this simple story uniquely illuminating. For instance, Sen. Lieberman would collect $135 billion less in taxes each year than Gov. Dean, and spend proportionately less. That’s a $1,393 difference per US household per year–something to think about. The difference between Dean and Gephardt is more about spending priorities: Gephardt budgets more than twice as much for health care, but Dean offers more support to states. On trade, Gephardt is unique among the major candidates, for he alone would renegotiate NAFTA and the WTO agreements.

I like today’s article, but there’s so much more that could be written along the same lines. For instance, what would states likely do with the $100 billion/year that Howard Dean proposes to give them? (See my budget pie charts for part of the answer.) What would a typical family’s tax bill look like under Lieberman’s plan, versus Dean’s or Gephardt’s? How would one go about renegotiating NAFTA, and what would the Canadian and Mexican negotiating positions be? Addressing these vital questions is the first responsibility of our best newspapers. Instead, they all send their top reporters to Iowa and New Hampshire to record politicians’ gaffes, count heads at campaign events, and describe the primary results before anyone votes.