Oh, Lord, let me not be a frontrunner! Today, less than a month into the primary season, we seem at the point of pronouncing the political obituaries of the two candidates who were the strong favorites to win their parties’ nominations only a few short weeks ago. Rudy Giuliani is trailing badly in the polls in Florida, where he has to win or come close to winning today to remain a viable candidate. Hillary Clinton could still come back on Super Tuesday from her disastrous defeat in South Carolina on Saturday, but this is beginning to look less and less likely with each new endorsement picked up by Barack Obama.
Both frontrunners, it’s true, have made some serious mistakes. By putting all his eggs in the Florida basket and sitting out the earlier contests, Rudy seems to have sabotaged his own campaign — though of course, if he’s got a bigger-than-expected share of the votes there tomorrow morning this may yet seem like a tactical masterstroke. And by unleashing Bill to hint that the campaign’s genuine African-American candidate is really just a Jesse Jackson clone and therefore, presumably, unelectable, Hillary may also have made a fatal misstep with a similarly high-risk strategy to write off, in effect, the black primary vote — of which she can henceforth expect to get a near-Republican share — in order to leverage the white.
But in spite of what seems likely to prove the two candidates self-destructive tendencies, I don’t think it can be entirely accidental that the last thing the media would have wanted up until now was an easy victory for either front-runner, or a smooth path to the nomination. They may prefer Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama at the end of the process — or even, conceivably, Mr. Giuliani to a more socially conservative Republican — but for so long as they are able to keep their audience or circulation numbers up by sustaining public interest in the campaign, they are going to be rooting for the underdogs wherever they can find them. And never have they been less ashamed than they are today to display their favoritism openly.
Even more significantly, I wonder if it can be quite coincidental that Clinton and Giuliani are also the two candidates in the race with the largest personal hinterland. Both, that is, have a long personal and political history filled with conveniently murky episodes that promise scandal or other reasons for doubting — or pretending to doubt — their fitness for high office. These the media are naturally inclined to exploit in order to do what the media do best, which is to make themselves indispensable to the political process by exposing the supposed realities behind appearances and telling the simple folk of both parties what the signs and portents they discover really mean.
Rudy Giuliani can no more be simply the mayor who did what no one thought it was possible to do in America’s biggest city than Mrs Clinton can be a former First Lady whose attempt to take an active policy-making role in her husband’s administration was (shall we say) less than totally successful. These are the obvious truths about them which, because they obviously are of no particular interest to the media. What they care about is what they can represent as the real truth, which lies neither in the candidates’ respective records of accomplishment (or lack of it) nor in their policy pronouncements, both of which are matters of public record and therefore afford no role for the media’s interpretive function. The real truth must lie in those half-hidden traits of personality or character, to which only someone who knows them as well as the media knows them, can have access.
Ironically, it was just this brand of media politics that Clinton herself attempted to play when she made her now-notorious comparison between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. It’s all very well to monopolize the media mysteries of inspiration and charisma, as, it is generally agreed, does Barack Obama, but it takes duller, workaday qualities to actually get things done politically. This was hardly a controversial opinion, you might have thought, until the media seized upon her words as one of the coded messages by which the media derive their raison d’être of decoding for the rest of us.
She paid a considerable price for trying to play the media’s game. Like the Bernie Kerik scandal which has touched Giuliani with guilt-by-association, this only succeeded in providing another excuse for the media to over-interpret it as an indication of her unfitness for office. Obama, meanwhile, not only has a very brief and relatively uninteresting record in public life — once a disqualification for office but now a big advantage — but moreover, he has virtual immunity from media scandal hunting on account of his race. And on top of everything else, he has the sense to keep his soaring rhetoric almost content-free.
Of course, all the candidates now understand the importance of keeping to big generalities and high aspirations and creditable feelings in order not to fall foul of the media’s obsessive search for scandal, but there is obviously a huge electoral advantage to those who, like the Illinois senator, are naturally good at these things. And now this media darling, who doesn’t have to spin the media because they spin themselves on his behalf, wins still greater kudos from the likes of Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post for not bothering to court the media like everybody else!
It’s hilarious, but such media madness may only have much electoral impact during the peak of the media’s influence in the primary season. The failure of their blatant campaign to unseat George W. Bush four years ago suggests that a different dynamic will apply when we get to the general election next autumn and people begin to have the uneasy sense that maybe substance and accomplishment matter after all — or at least matter more than who passes the media’s purity test.
– James Bowman is the author of Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, forthcoming next month from Encounter Books. He is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.