Aside from who won or lost, there was a lot not to like in the 2012 campaign. I say this as one who has followed campaigns from the local to the presidential level since I was a teenager and mostly enjoyed every moment of it. But not this year.
True, the presidential race gave us something to be thankful for: a clear choice. One candidate wanted more government, higher tax rates, as much redistribution of wealth as feasible, and a bigger welfare state. The other favored less government, lower tax rates, no increase in redistribution, and what once was called a conservative welfare state.
Some would consider this poisonous polarization. In truth, it’s where politics ought to be, with two parties on opposite sides ideologically. The disappearance of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats was long overdue. They only confused voters about what a candidate might do once elected. Now, more often than not, the voters know what to expect, thus who to vote for.
What was so bad this year? Let’s start with polls. (I’ll leave the issue of media bias to others.) That there were too many polls and that they often contradicted each other are beyond dispute. If voters were mystified about the state of a particular race—that is, who was ahead and by how much—they can be forgiven. I was frequently mystified.
Most voters are unlikely to dig into how a poll’s questions were phrased or what its sample of respondents looked like. What they notice are the top-line numbers, which may be the least revealing finding in a survey. And not all polls are equal. My advice is to look to polling organizations with good track records, like Gallup, Hart-McInturff, and Rasmussen, and newer outfits such as Public Policy Polling (PPP) and Resurgent Republic.
Polls have increasingly had a corrupting effect on political coverage. Reporters start with a poll, work backwards from it, and operate on the assumption a candidate who’s trailing must be doing something terribly wrong. Yet often they aren’t, and later reporters are embarrassed as that very candidate surges to victory.
Next, nationally televised debates. There were more than 20 in the yearlong campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. They gave peripheral candidates with minimal prospects an incentive to announce for president, if only to get on TV before dropping out to run for reelection to whatever office they already held. Or encouraged them to run purely for vanity reasons. The Republican debates were too crowded with eight candidates. But they had one lasting impact: They taught Mitt Romney to be a skillful debater.
The four general election debates also taught a lesson. The two with single moderators who interrupted the candidates infrequently were scintillating. The other two with officious and intrusive moderators were irritating. In 2016, moderators are likely to be noninterventionist.
Then there were the fact checkers. The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway is an expert on fact checking by the media, and he’s no fan. The troubles with this genre of journalism are many. Partisan bias sometimes intrudes. Checkers flyspeck campaign rhetoric that may be exaggerated but isn’t true or false.
The low point of fact checking in 2012 involved Paul Ryan’s speech to the Republican convention accepting the vice presidential nomination. The New York Times cited “a litany of falsehoods.” But the checker brigade could point to no lies or erroneous facts. In Ryan’s case, they faulted him for things he hadn’t said, rather than what he did say. Is there such a thing as a lie of omission or an unspoken falsehood? I don’t think so.
Finally, the overdose. I love campaigns. One of my regrets is not having played a role in my father’s campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1963 (I was in college). A Republican, he lost in what was then a Democratic state. Covering campaigns is one of the joys of journalism. And watching the best political reporters in action—guys like Jack Germond and Robert Novak—was a rare treat.
My complaint is not that there’s too much coverage. Perish the thought. What’s worrisome, perhaps only to me, is that too many people take politics too seriously. More than a few folks I’ve run into in recent years are obsessed. They’re political junkies in the nonmetaphorical sense. They’re addicted. It’s fine to be concerned about this year’s presidential race. It’s enormously important. And it’s smart to keep up with the news. But there’s a limit.
Politics isn’t life. Like baseball, it’s a pastime. There are surefire ways to keep politics in perspective, especially for sports fans. Always boo politicians who show up for some ceremony before a game, at halftime, or between periods. And be prepared to rebuke politicians who pretend to be enthusiastic fans but don’t know the names of players. Sports buffs know intuitively that this works. If you’re not one, give it a try, and politics might just find its proper place in your life.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.