After the Republican presidential field in 2008 spent a year trying to agree with each other, this year's GOP contenders are showing early signs that they have real policy differences, and they're not afraid to debate them. And yet much of the media is too obsessed with vanity candidates and nonissues to cover the serious debate.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has begun his presidential campaign by questioning the necessity of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, a break with Republican policy over the last decade. And, while seeking the nomination of a party that largely denies man's impact on climate change, Barbour told a crowd in Iowa in March that it is "prudent" to "proceed as if global warming is an issue."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used his inaugural trip to New Hampshire last month to offer a defense of the state's health care plan, rather than backing away from an issue his opponents will certainly use against him. Jon Huntsman, who will explore a race once he returns from serving as ambassador to China at the end of the month, took stands on immigration, gay rights, and the environment that will set him apart from the field. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said frequently that entitlements should be examined in an effort to rein in spending.
The 2008 campaign hardly presented these sorts of policy differences. In countless debates, Republican contenders used their 60 seconds to agree with each other and offer soundbites in hopes of distinguishing themselves from an ideologically homogenous field. Even former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose record offered the clearest opportunities for contrast, did his best to appear just like one of the guys. Only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, stood out, and the rest of the field used him as a punching bag.
Refreshingly, serious candidates among the 2012 field are showing signs of substantive policy debates. Moderators at each of the early candidate gatherings have a chance to contrast Barbour's views on Afghanistan with Romney's, or with Pawlenty's, or with Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Journalists can ask serious questions about Commonwealth Care, its successes and failures, and the role it plays in Romney's legacy. Every candidate will be asked to respond to Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, and to weigh in on whether and how entitlements should be cut to solve the debt crisis.
And yet it is the sideshows that dominate media coverage. Whether it's the pseudo-candidacy of Donald Trump, the fascination over Sarah Palin, or the obsession with anyone who wrongly believes President Obama was not born in the United States, the bulk of the presidential coverage in recent weeks has been profoundly unserious.
Perhaps, in an age of fragmented and increasingly partisan media, that is to be expected. After all, many outlets judge a story based on the clicks it drives to websites, rather than the content of the story itself. Birtherism has proven a popular traffic driver; on Wednesday, Matt Drudge led his site with a preview of a book authored by notorious anti-Obama conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi. Palin drives so much traffic that several national and Beltway publications devote staff time to writing up every television interview, Facebook post, and tweet emanating from her lakeside home in Wasilla, Alaska (For all her protestations that she despises the "lame-stream media," Palin has been very good for business. The worst thing she could do to harm the media is to stop being so popular among her conservative fans).
Trump is the most egregious case of a sideshow borne of the Washington-New York echo chamber. The bombastic businessman and shameless self-promoter has, at one time or another, espoused conflicting opinions on myriad issues, from the stimulus package to abortion. His ego is a source of great humor, as are his widely varying estimates of his own wealth (The only thing that doesn't vary about his bank balance is the trend line: He's always worth more than he was a few days ago, truly a financial feat of Lehman-esque accounting proportions).
And yet Trump is a near-daily fixture on cable television. In the past week, he has sat for extended interviews that aired both on ABC and NBC, and he appears weekly on Fox News. Trump is ratings gold, especially for NBC, which hosts The Apprentice and stands to benefit from any buzz Trump attracts.
Trump is also the source of a different kind of media attention, from exasperated columnists incredulous at the notion that Americans would pay attention to such an obvious blowhard. Just this week, columnists Charlie Cook, Jonah Goldberg, David Brooks, Richard Cohen, Matthew Continetti, Kathleen Parker, and Eugene Robinson have all devoted their time to The Donald. Unlike The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who successfully went a month without writing about Palin, this column has had no such success in swearing off Trump-apalooza 2011.
Trump winning the Republican nomination, or even competing seriously, is beyond a remote possibility. Palin's hopes of winning aren't much better, and her absence from the national spotlight suggests she's not likely to try. And while rumors that Obama was born somewhere other than on Oahu, Hawaii, may drive traffic, facts, as John Adams lamented, are stubborn things.
There are serious and substantive differences between candidates seeking the presidency for reasons beyond personal gain and publicity. Sadly, the silly season means that's all being missed.