And they’re off…

Al Gore’s departure from the 2004 race eliminates the front-runner and opens the field for a pre-primary horse race. I detest the horse-race metaphor, but it has become nearly impossible in our media culture to think of the presidential nominating process in other terms–unless, of course, we use a football or war metaphor.

That we view the process primarily as a race leads directly to the kind of thinking outlined by Howard Kurtz yesterday. At a moment when the press has the time and opportunity to explore issues before the primary season begins, it will instead spend its efforts focusing on positioning:

Dick Gephardt is the front-runner in Iowa, which would be an insurmountable advantage, especially with his labor support, except that John Kerry is the leader in New Hampshire, but of course he’s expected to win so any softening would be fatal, especially in South Carolina, where John Edwards could have the edge. But all that turns on whether Joseph Lieberman can garner support as a northern pro-war hawk outside his base, which in turn would be influenced by Tom Daschle’s decision to jump in, which could make it easier for Howard Dean to claim the outsider’s mantle. Or not.

Kurtz says this situation makes political reporters “ecstatic.” I guess so. And why not? To describe the kind of political reporting and writing they could be doing, the kind that might actually be useful in understanding the issues, I’d have to use, say, a ditch-digging metaphor.

Horse-race reporting is lazy reporting. It requires only that you take what politicians feed and then make superficial connections. And it’s more fun to write because it’s personality driven. Plus, there’s the added bonus of political prognostication (and an appearance on cable TV!)–a peculiar journalistic sport in which there are absolutely no penalties for mistakes.

But journalists counter that issues reporting bores the public. Yes, that’s true. Issues reporting bores the public when handled badly…or lazily.