My Washington Post colleague Margaret Sullivan’s exhortation for better campaign coverage (“the mission of pre-election coverage should not be to determine who’s going to win, but to respond intelligently to what voters want and need to know”) should be studied by media and media consumers alike.
The yearning for more focus on substance and on presidential preparedness is one reason I’ve begun a series on pure policy questions directed at prominent Democrats. (And more are on the way!)
However, the responsibility for more enlightening and civil campaigns rests in large part with the candidates. Let me suggest five ways they can encourage better coverage and resist playing into the horse-race mentality.
First, candidates don’t have to answer questions that demand they act as political scientists (who’s your natural constituency?) or pundits (what’s your path to victory?). (The answers to those are: Everyone, and win more votes.) They can tell reporters to go ask pollsters or analysts or even campaign staff. These, however, are not questions that will elucidate why the person should or shouldn’t be the nominee, what executive talents they have or how they’ve proved their mettle. Once they stop answering these process questions, reporters will stop asking them (or ask them less frequently).
Second, don’t dignify President Donald Trump’s attacks with answers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., doesn’t need to keep defending her decision to get a DNA test (“I shouldn’t have” is the best answer), nor respond to his “Pocahontas” smear. “One reason we need a new president is to get a new tone and level of respect back into politics” is an appropriate retort, but in no case should a candidate make it about himself/herself.
Third, if a candidate doesn’t want to play the oppo-gotcha game on slips, flubs and gaffes (as well as more major issues), he or she shouldn’t engage staff to dump oppo against her competitors on background. That doesn’t mean candidates cannot attack competitors — or “differentiate,” if you prefer. But they should do it on the record, in a debate or in an ad. Otherwise, they are asking the press (and the press is eager to comply) to do their dirty work while hypocritically denouncing “personal attacks.” With the exception of minor clarifications or logistics, shouldn’t all the communication with the press be on the record?
Fourth, it’s no secret that if candidates really want coverage of substance, they have to talk about it — regularly, with voters, with editorial boards and with reporters — especially with those who cover subject matter. (Nothing prevents a candidate from, say, calling up a reporter on the energy beat to talk about energy or going on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show to talk foreign policy.)
Listen, every candidate and political news watcher knows that if a candidate goes on one of the Sunday network news shows for 10 to 20 minutes, they’re going to get asked about substance. What they cannot do is give a single speech on a topic, put out a blizzard of policy papers and expect the media to cover that over a sustained period of time rather than the daily stump speech that contains little or no substance.
Fifth, candidates should, and in the Trump era must, talk about themselves and provide evidence of their character, tenacity and temperament. They should talk about their influences and their biography. We aren’t electing a policy paper; we’re electing a person who will have to wrestle with problems not yet evident, lead an executive branch and deal with Congress. How are they going to manage all that?
The GOP decided in 2016 that character, curiosity, decency, preparedness, etc., didn’t matter — and look where it got us. The personal material can be interesting, gripping even. Some of the most fascinating parts of the 2018 campaign came when, for example, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, talked about why he supports the NFL players who take a knee, or when now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., showed us what her life was like and why she understood voters’ real-world problems.
Now, candidates’ best efforts to drive the conversation away from trivia, polls and other distractions don’t always pan out. However, simply blaming the media for the sorry state of political coverage isn’t going to improve it. Candidates determined to talk about themselves in depth and to share their substantive views can raise the bar — if only a little.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.