Just thought I would expand my thought mentioned in Jonah’s column . . .
Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses, but one common problem, as my National Review colleague Jim Geraghty notes, is the growing phenomenon of the pundit-candidate. Gingrich and Huckabee (also Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and radio host Herman Cain to name a few) have created cottage industries for themselves as commentators. That helps with name ID (and book sales), but it also overexposes and diminishes them by forcing them to comment at length on subjects where silence would be golden. Huckabee’s bizarre pandering to so-called birthers and to the Natalie Portman-haters’ caucus is a perfect example of the problem.
Ronald Reagan’s columns and radio commentaries were a key way for him to stay in the public eye between his 1976 and 1980 runs. But it was a wildly different media world then; unless someone attended a speech or they were written up in the national newsweeklies or daily newspapers, there was no way for the average American to encounter a potential candidate in an off-year. Over the years, we’ve seen more candidates jumping into punditry and pundits jumping into political office: Pat Buchanan’s presidential bids in between “McLaughlin Group” appearances; Jesse Jackson followed his presidential bids by hosting “Both Sides” on CNN from 1992 to 2000. Alan Keyes was better known as a talking head than as an ambassador when he launched his 1996 and 2000 bids.
In recent years, television show hosts Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, Lou Dobbs, and Larry Kudlow have all flirted with running for Senate.
But the cross-pollination of pundits and presidential candidates gets ever more ubiquitous, and I would argue it’s not good for the candidates and not good for punditry, since the purposes of the two roles are at times contradictory. A presidential candidate’s purpose is to A) articulate their agenda and persuade people of its value and B) get elected; I’ll let you argue which one should come first. A pundit’s purpose is to illuminate and explain and perhaps entertain. Being good at one set of skills doesn’t always translate to the other set of skills.
Few presidential candidates have trouble getting coverage in an era of three 24/7 news channels (which cover quite a bit of political news), hundreds of talk-radio stations and programs, and — ahem — frequently updated campaign blogs. Now we live in a world where Politico reporters cover book signings. Candidates can hardly justify that they need to do this to stay in the public eye anymore; they may find the perches convenient and lucrative. (The positions also provide a handy excuse to turn down media requests from other channels and news sources.)
A candidate who is a paid on-air contributor with a news network gives up a bit of discretion, it would seem. A candidate with other forms of income can always say “no comment,” or a more refined “I just don’t have much to say about that. I haven’t thought about it.” It would be rather hard for any paid contributor to blow off a host’s question; after all, answering the questions and offering analysis and reaction is their job.