The Character Factor

Bruce Cain is a UC Berkeley political science professor. Respond [email protected]

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I suppose you might expect your friendly, local political science professor to complain about an election that has been heavily focused on character assassination as opposed to serious discussion of the issues. I will not disappoint you. Yes, I winced "big time" (the term of preference for "cool" middle-aged guys who are bonding) when poll numbers jumped because Al Gore and George W. Bush kissed Tipper and Oprah, respectively. And predictably, I am not happy that Jay Leno and David Letterman have become the new power brokers and image makers in presidential elections. But I will not bore you with a sanctimonious academic sermon on why this is all bad for U.S. democracy. Rather, I will tell you why I think this has happened.

As is so often the case, it is never just one thing - the explanation is a confluence of several factors. To begin with, let us give credit where it is deserved. Win or lose, the Republicans have run a brilliant tactical campaign. Faced with the fourth-best election day economic conditions in the postwar period and the greater salience of so-called Democratic issues (i.e. health care, education, social security reform, prescription drugs) over traditional Republican issues (with the exception of tax cuts), the Republicans blurred party differences on social issues and turned the election into a mandate on trust and likability.

During all four debates, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney carefully phrased their answers on abortion, gay rights, hate crime legislation, gun control and affirmative action so that you could project your view into their answers. Moderate Republicans fully expect that Bush will appoint justices who will uphold Roe vs. Wade, and the Christian right fully expects that he will not. In the long run, this creates an uncomfortable governance problem for a Bush presidency ("Read my lips, no new abortions.") But in the short run, the "compassionate conservatism" strategy seems to have taken the hard edge off the Republican image for many swing voters.

By blurring the differences on social issues, Bush has been able to turn this election into a personal referendum. Two years ago when California Republicans first proclaimed that Bush would lead them out of the political woods, they predicted that he would have great personal appeal to voters. The fact that America did not immediately embrace the early edition, smirking Bush during the primaries, shocked them. But with a little coaching on how to keep a straight face while spewing mindless homilies, Bush got back on track. It is not by accident that this presidential race feels like the nation's most expensive fraternity president election.

But it is not all the Republicans' doing. Gore himself must shoulder some responsibility for this. Knowing that the Republicans would try to make trust a key issue, bearing in mind that he had lost credibility in his account of the 1996 fundraising scandal, and having been forewarned in 1988 that his tendency to claim credit was out of control, Gore should have taken steps to take the oxygen out of this fire. Like Bill Clinton before him, Gore let his compulsions get the better of him. If Gore loses this race, he should take it personally.

There are others to blame as well - the press, for instance. A recent study of the press treatment in this election confirms what most of us already knew - that Gore has been treated far more harshly than Bush. Why? Some of it is that the Washington press corps in particular has just gotten tired of the Clinton-Gore "spin" cycle. Moreover, they have formed implicit ethical conclusions about candidate honesty. Apparently, it is OK if a candidate refuses to answer questions directly and intentionally blurs policy differences, but woe to those who mislead the press about their private lives or exaggerate their political achievements. I am bothered by both types of behavior, but if I had to rank them, not telling people where you stand on Supreme Court appointments has far more serious democratic consequences than getting your childhood union lullabies confused or making up stories about the your pet dog's drug prescriptions. But don't tell that to the press.

The press issue is complicated by an important shift in the information habits of the American electorate. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, over half of the voters in this state say that the local television news is their primary source of political information. Hanging around KTVU, I know how hard it is for television to package political stories in a visual and entertaining way. Consider the first debate. Those who kept score on substantive points concluded that Gore won. But, the best television was Gore's sighs and body language. If your only exposure to the debate was through the local television coverage, you would have concluded that Gore did not perform well. His subsequent drop in the polls was the triumph of appearance over substance.

In the end, the undecided voters are the true source of our political lightness problem. Some of them are well informed and genuinely conflicted, but many are simply "civic slackers" who do not take their responsibility as citizens seriously. Rather than learn the issues, they opt for the guy they dislike the least. And since that is what they are looking for, it leads the candidates down the Letterman-Leno-Winfrey-Queen Latifah path.

What will swing voters get? Quite possibly, not what they think they are voting for. If Bush wins the presidency and the Republicans retain control of the Congress, it is pretty easy to predict that policies will lurch to right. Perhaps, properly informed and focused on the issues, that is what the swing voters would have chosen anyway. But excuse me if I would have preferred that they made that choice with their eyes wide open.


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