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In Praise of Substance


One of the dirty little secrets of the campaign trail is that the candidates repeatedly lapse into substantiveness. Maybe it's just early. Maybe in a few weeks, the candidates will be more disciplined about sticking to posing, sniping and smearing.

Overheard yesterday after a Bill Richardson speech: "It was substantive. It wasn't just sound bites." This surprised observation came from Michael Libbie, 57, an advertising executive and radio host.

Richardson had just given what his campaign hyped as a major address outlining the biggest global threats of the 21st Century. It was big picture stuff, very Al Gore-ish, with a touch of E.O. Wilson: "Every species is entangled with the lives of others. As we slash away individual strings, it is increasingly likely that the entire web will collapse."

Which is hardly a sound bite, and is more substantive than, say, your typical campaign attack ad ("My opponent hates children and small furry pets, including bunnies").

The presidential campaign has surely seen a few non-substantive moments. Candidates make verbal slips, and are certain to see that on You Tube. We have talked about the marriages of the candidates, and why someone got divorced, or didn't get divorced. At one point there was a kerfuffle about why Barack Obama didn't wear a flag pin on his lapel. A book said Hillary Clinton listened to an illegally recorded audiotape of political opponents -- in 1992! All this stuff is out there, but it hasn't yet overwhelmed the news coverage. It's still possible for voters to find out what the candidates claim they believe and what they insist they'll do as president.

Rudy Giuliani isn't shy of throwing an elbow, but he was in expository mode this week when he appeared before the Club for Growth in Washington. He laid out an uncompromising free-market, low-tax, anti-regulation, anti-lawsuit agenda, interrupted by only a few opportunistic swipes at the Democrats. (He accused the Democrats of wanting to be more like the French, pre-Sarkozy.)

He ruled out any increases in Social Security taxes or taxes of any kind. He said the estate tax should be eliminated both for philosophical (it's unfair double-taxation, he said) and practical reasons (it'll drive capital to other countries). He said Social Security needs some kind of private equity element. Giuliani's America, as he described it, doesn't seem to have any economic problems that the unfettered free market can't solve.

It would be interesting to see him discuss that one-one-one with someone like - (picking a name randomly - Hillary Clinton, who has argued on the campaign trail that "unfettered" capitalism can be disruptive to people's lives. There's a real ideological difference here. Her stump speeches are filled with references to policy proposals, government initiatives, legislation she's sponsored, and all the many ways that a Hillary-run White House would fix, or at least tweak, America's problems. Toss a question at her -- say, on what can be done about autism -- and she'll go on for five or six minutes, enumerating her multi-pronged autism agenda.

Barack Obama is another candidate with a weakness for turning thoughtful and nuanced on the stump. Last week in New Hampshire, he finished a speech and prepared to shake hands, but one voter held up a little sign saying simply "2013." Obama recognized it as a question: Why wouldn't he vow to remove all American soldiers from Iraq by 2013? Obama could have ignored it, but he saw an opportunity instead for a full exegesis of his reasoning.
Post columnist David Ignatius recently implored Obama to let go a little more, to let it rip. And Post reporter Alec MacGillis this week perceptively noted that Obama's message of creating a "new politics", when many Democrats are furious about Republican policies. An Obama aide said the senator has never been a fan of the sound bite, but it remains to be seen if he can hold the line on that when he's a distant second.

Everything will evolve in weeks ahead. This is still October 2007, when nuance and detail can survive on the trail. Political temperatures will rise as the fall progresses and winter comes upon us. For the news media, conflict is still the coin of the realm. The presidential campaign is still an emotional game; metaphors are more powerful than position papers. A process that begins with crunchy position papers may wind up pivoting on whether someone sighed too much in a debate.

Our own fascination with political battle -- with politics red in tooth and claw -- will favor the sharp jab and the uppercut over the colloquy.

By Post Editor  |  October 19, 2007; 12:14 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Joel's Two Cents  
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