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Our Corrosive Guessing Games
LAST week I stumbled across this headline: “Gov. Cuomo passes on supporting Hillary Clinton for 2016 presidential bid.”
Take a moment. Savor the epic, eye-crossing absurdity of that.
For starters there’s no bid. Not officially. Not yet. A whole lot can happen in the three years between now and the wintry Iowa caucuses of 2016, which might not even be wintry by then, global warming and all.
Also, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s top dog, seems to have more than a mild interest in a move to the White House himself. And he’s being asked whether he’s poised to endorse a rival Democratic candidate who, I repeat, hasn’t even reached the point where she’s rounding up endorsements?
“It’s a long way away,” Cuomo said, sanely and predictably dodging the question and prompting the headline mentioned above, on the Web site of The New York Post.
But it wasn’t just The Post that deemed his demurral noteworthy. Hardly. I found similar reports from The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Daily News, CBS News, Newsday (“Cuomo shrugs off Clinton run”) and Politico (“Andrew Cuomo ducks on Hillary Clinton in 2016”). (The Times made cursory note of Cuomo’s statement toward the end of a story on other Cuomo-related matters.)
We’re officially out of control here. We’ve really lost it. No sooner had one presidential contest ended than the hyperventilating analysis of the next one began. And I mean “no sooner” literally. Election Day was Nov. 6. On Nov. 7 The Washington Post’s Web site provided readers with a candidate-by-candidate assessment of no fewer than six Republicans and seven Democrats thought to be in the hunt for the presidency next time around. “Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Field,” read the headline on that piece of fortunetelling.
You were sick of the 2012 race many months before its climax? You’ll be sick of 2016 by Easter, and at the rate we in the news media are going, you’ll be seeing polls and prognostications about 2020 by Memorial Day.
And this isn’t just silly of us. It’s corrosive. It undercuts our own credibility and thus the amount of attention we can command when we broach less wildly speculative matters that really deserve it. It perverts the electoral process, because the field of contenders who can hope to get on the radar, raise money and make a go of it gets set earlier and earlier.
And it complicates the tricky and important business of governing, which a politician can’t adequately focus on if he or she is being pulled into, and distracted by, a permanent campaign. In fact the media’s emphasis on the horse races and pundits’ insistence that those races begin ever sooner suggest that governing doesn’t really matter. Only elections do.
What’s more, our assiduous soothsaying is an insult to history, which has shown that when presidential predictions are made — and presidential preferences surveyed — this far in advance, they’re often worthless. As Doyle McManus pointed out recently in a column in The Los Angeles Times, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who were polled right after the 1988 election about which of seven potential candidates they most wanted as the party’s 1992 nominee named Ted Kennedy (26 percent of respondents), Mario Cuomo (19 percent), Michael Dukakis (15 percent) and Jesse Jackson (15 percent) as their top picks.
Not one of those four men even ended up running, and the candidate who nabbed the 1992 nomination was such a relatively unheralded upstart four years beforehand that the poll, by ABC News, didn’t even ask respondents about him. His name would be Bill Clinton.
Events usually shape a given contest’s players and dynamics, not the other way around. “The landscape could change dramatically — and likely will,” observed Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist and one of the authors of “Masters of Disaster,” a new book on damage control. “Remember how 9/11 redefined U.S. politics?”
As for Hillary and her ostensible lock on the 2016 nomination, well, she was once said to have a lock on the 2008 nomination. And along came a certain Barack Obama, who had other ideas about that.
Could someone like him emerge in 2016? Absolutely, though we’re almost surely making that harder by paying such enormous heed at such a premature point to the established brands, the known quantities. What we’re doing underscores the click-driven nature of journalism today, the impulse to produce reports with ready-made hooks, such as names with ready-made pull. Clinton, Christie, Rubio, Ryan: these are known sellers. Trusted bait.
That same impulse is why you see and hear more about Donald Trump than is warranted — and I’m guilty on this score. Trump is irrelevant, but he’s also an eyeball magnet.
And that impulse is why you have already been made repeatedly aware of the possibility that the actress Ashley Judd will take on Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the United States Senate, in his 2014 re-election effort. Judd’s chances as a novice candidate in a state as red as Kentucky are pretty poor. But her name’s a starry draw, so her imagined campaign gets coverage — already.
SPECULATION comes easier than real, gritty information. In a news environment starved for profits and proper funding, speculation doesn’t cost much to round up and showcase. It’s a game in which just about anyone can participate, so as the number of out-and-out chroniclers in the news business dwindles, there’s a rise in clairvoyants who don’t just assess facts but obsess over rune stones.
Is Christie’s weight going to drag him down? Is Ryan’s budget plan? Will we go round one more time with Santorum, with Gingrich, with Perry? Consuming the news over the last few weeks has been like watching reruns on the TV Land cable channel. It’s déjà vu all over again.
And that’s because we in the media are so far ahead of ourselves we’re chasing our tails. What an off-putting spectacle. And what a risky one.