I have a piece on the homepage today in which I argue that, at this stage in the primaries, all of the candidates for president have an incentive to prioritize ”canned” responses and “mini speeches” over the detailed answers that political junkies so crave. Put simply, my point is that most Americans do not pay attention in the way that writers at the New York Times do; rather, they tune in and out and hear snippets here and there while they are doing other things. As a such, the more times that a given aspirant can repeat his biography or convey his broad worldview the more likely the casual listener is to grasp who he is. Of course Marco Rubio is repetitive! He knows that most people haven’t heard of him yet and he wants to ensure that he is in control when they see him for the first time.
To acknowledge this is to gain a better insight into why politicians behave as they do. After the most recent Benghazi hearing, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton had aced her ordeal and thereby put one of her major liabilities behind her. In a technical sense, perhaps she had. But the important question going forward is: did this actually help her? I’m really not so sure that it did. If you were to have walked through an airport on the day of the proceedings, what would you have seen on the soundless TVs? A smart and powerful woman repeatedly outshining her back bench foes? Or the Democratic nominee for president in the dock once again? I think you would have seen the latter, and, given Clinton’s pre-existing reputation as a liar, that’s damaging. (I still think Clinton is the favorite next year.)
To better understand what I’m arguing here, suppose that Clinton had not been in Congress but in court, and that she had not been asked to account for her behavior while secretary of state but that she had been charged with murder. Presumably, any acquittal would have yielded reams of complicated legal discussion and a general agreement that the charges had been trumped up after all. But would the average person know that? Or would they simply have heard that Hillary Clinton had been tried for murder? In many cases, I think it would have been the latter. As recent polling shows, only one third of Americans can name the three branches of government. Do we really think that they are poring over committee transcripts?
This problem obtains on both sides, of course. It is for this reason that insensitive rhetoric about immigrants hurts the Republican party so much. If they were to dig into the GOP’s stated positions, the average voter might well agree with its stance on the border. Most, though, will never get that far. Instead, they will see ugly headlines and the most excessive of quotations, and then they will get on their plane or get out of their car or switch over to Modern Family and wonder why on earth Donald Trump would want to deport their gardener. That there is more nuance involved is besides the point. Unless we seek to acquire expertise, we all live and die by broad impressions. One cannot blame politicians for trying to hone those impressions whenever they are handed an opportunity.