September 30, 2002

Politics without politics is not politics…

This story in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates the structural biases of journalism. It is a conflict story. The central plot of the narrative is that the characters–Democrats and President Bush–disagree about, among other things, the conduct of the mid-term campaign. The plot includes accusations and retorts. The theme involves questioning what issues should be above politics. The climax is still in doubt. Let’s examine this portion of the article:

When Bush asserted in a fundraising speech in New Jersey on Sept. 23 that the Democrat-controlled Senate “is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) shot back that Bush was using the war to distract attention from domestic problems.

“It is despicable that any president would attempt to use the serious matter of war as a tool in a campaign year,” Byrd said on the Senate floor last week, as Bush’s campaign activity and the backlash it generated reached a fever pitch.

Bush’s unbridled desire to regain control of the Senate, the White House’s advice to GOP candidates to make the war a central theme of their campaigns, and tensions within the Democratic Party over how, and whether, to challenge a popular president on the conduct of a war collided last week.

The eruption highlighted just how much of the president’s time is occupied not by governing, but by bare-knuckles political campaigning.

While I believe Bush’s “not interested” remark (quoted out of context by the Tribune) was ill-considered, I find this fragment of Byrd’s response more interesting. Since when hasn’t a president used the serious matters of the republic as a campaign tool? Byrd employs a standard tactic against a political zinger: huff and puff about how it’s just playing politics. Sometimes this tactic works because many Americans seem to assume that the affairs of state can be handled without partisan wrangling–a terribly naive assumption. That’s why Bush’s “I’m a uniter, not a divider” rhetoric worked so well. Never mind that this assumption is a complete fantasy. Or, more accurately, it is a political myth.

The reporter, Bob Kemper, furthers this silly myth by describing as “unbridled” Bush’s desire to win the Senate for the Republicans. Apparently this reporter has never heard of game theory or the democratic bargain. You can’t lead if you don’t win.

And, finally, we see the ravages of perpetual campaign caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Kemper seems unaware that this has been the rule of presidential politics since at least 1976. This phenomenon is one of the major causes of the constant political wrangling over political wrangling that has come to define most of politics and its coverage by the news media.

Oh, and one last thing–“bare-knuckles political campaigning”? The reason this is a cliche is that there isn’t any other kind campaigning. The adjective is essentially meaningless except that, like some of Kenper’s other choices, it keeps readers focused on the wrong thing.

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