One problem with political campaigns is a lot like a problem with mutual-fund performance measurement: it’s common practice only to compare candidates against the competition rather than versus absolute standards. So a mutual fund that loses money for customers may be called good if it loses less money than other funds do, or less than do market indices like the S&P 500.
Similarly, journalists often seem more interested in the competitive aspects of campaigns than they do in substantial questions about candidates’ characters and ideas.
I can understand this selective performance-framing when it’s done by fund companies, because they want to show their products in the best light possible. I can even understand why some financial journalists follow the same line to avoid discussing funds’ absolute rates of return or alternative investments. The publications these journos work for usually accept fund advertising, after all.
But why do political journalists who are unaffiliated with the campaigns they cover do it? Why do they so often ask Candidate X only about how his positions compare to those of Candidate Y, and not about the intellectual and moral justifications for those positions? A good example of this was the treatment that journos, even some politically conservative op-ed writers, gave to Senator Lieberman. They tended to treat him as an honorable conservative because he supports the war and has reasonable (as they see it) positions on a number of issues.
But Lieberman is also the guy who, as Al Gore’s VP candidate in 2000, repudiated his earlier conservative positions (on school choice, racial preferences, etc.) and began parroting the Demo Left’s party line. His doing so clearly had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with opportunism.
And now that the national mood, particularly on defense, has shifted in a more conservative direction, Lieberman (before he dropped out of the race) was again sounding like one of the most conservative Democrats. Yet journalists by and large ignored his troubling inconsistency — that’s the nicest term for it — and concentrated instead on his standing in the horse race.
I don’t mean to single out Lieberman; most of the other presidential candidates are worse (I rate Bush higher because of his competent war leadership — an empirical fact, IMO — as well as his relative consistency and more libertarian orientation). My question is why we should take seriously evaluations of presidential candidates that are typically framed exclusively in terms of other candidates. To be blunt about it, by any normal standard most of these guys are liars and phonies. But it’s one thing to say that X is less bad than A, B and C (which is how most voters probably think about it), and quite another to pretend, as the press so often does, that candidates like Sharpton and Dean, much less Lieberman, can be taken seriously on their personal and intellectual merits.
(Robert Samuelson’s discussion of press complicity in dishonest political arguments is worth reading in this regard.)