Campaign 2004 is in its final frantic hours as these words are being written, but deadlines being what they arethe bane of the bellowing pontificatoryou’ll be reading this after the results are known. Then again, maybe not. Maybe you’re as clueless as I am as I write, although that would take some doing. In any case, many observers are predicting that we may be in for a repeat of 2000, with Election Day a mere prelude to days if not weeks of recounts and legal wrangling. In the days leading up to Nov. 2, hundreds of lawyers from both parties were deployed in battleground states, ready to turn the act of voting into a case worthy of a television courtroom drama.
So, I ask again, is it over yet?
Whether the counting is finished or is continuing, the campaign clearly is over. No doubt you will have read commentaries suggesting that, as always, the candidates told us little, the issues were not debated, and that the media performed its usual disservice by focusing only on the horse race and not the real concerns of the American people.
None of those arguments, as it happens, is true.
While Campaign ’04 was not without its share of palaver and vacuous rhetoric, it is worth remembering that the fortunes of the two candidates turned not on silly accusations or reckless television advertisements but on civilized debate. Imagine that!
Regardless of which candidate won (or hasn’t quite won yet), the three presidential debates this year will be remembered as the most significant event of the campaign. Sixty-four million Americans watched the first debate, a record number. Minds were changed that night. And minds were changed after the following debates.
John Kerry was the consensus winner of the debates, but President Bush did make a comeback after a poor performance in the first session. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: The real winners were American voters who were yearning to hear the candidates in their own words, unscripted (though stuffed with rehearsed jabs) and unfiltered.
The attention paid to this year’s debates tells us that Americans remain interested in hearing both sides of the issues, which speaks to a certain admirable doggedness on their part. After all, genuine debate is on the verge of disappearing in the medium from which most Americans get their newstelevision.
Among the several insights to be gleaned from Campaign ’04 is the extent to which many politically active Americansas opposed to average citizenshave closed their minds to dissenting opinions. For them, the tone of the campaign was established not by the candidates but by their partisans in the press or on cable television. Many of the millions who watch Fox News at night, for example, clearly are not as interested in information as they are in hearing their opinions affirmed; likewise many of those who swear by what they read in The Nation.
The success of the Fox News formulapartisan commentators heaping venom on their fellow Americans who happen to have different political opinionshas led television producers to offer more of the same. (That should come as little surprise. It was the humorist Fred Allen, who died when the medium was in its infancy, who said that imitation was the sincerest form of television.) As a result, political discussion in its most public form now consists of rabid partisans snarling at each other and spewing the party line of the day. Egregious conduct is rewarded, slander is mistaken for passion and vulgarity for wit, and in millions of living rooms, viewers cheer for their side and libel the other. George W. Bush is not especially fluent in his native tongue, and John Kerry’s sentences defy diagrams; but they sounded like modern Ciceros compared with standard political fare on television.
Who are these people who grab the remote every night and eagerly tune into CNN’s Crossfire or The O’Reilly Factor on Fox? I don’t know anybody who does, and that should not be surprising. In fact, the audience for these shows is pathetically small, a few million in a country of more than 280 million. That does not mean that voters who shun CNN or Fox in favor of a sitcom or ESPN (or a book, or this gift called life) are disengaged from politics. Rather, it means they long for real discussion and not verbal gladiator matches.
In that sense, then, the system worked during Campaign ’04. I believe voters went to the polls better informed than ever before. No doubt some people voted for George Bush because, despite all the evidence, they believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11. No doubt some people voted for John Kerry because they believe Michael Moore’s assertion that we went to war in Afghanistan not to punish terrorists but to control a pipeline. These voters are not necessarily advertisements for an informed citizenry.
But such people are small in number, just like the audiences for political food fights. And they tend to be the most partisan voters, people who dismiss those who disagree with their views as unintelligent, even though they themselves often vote out of reflex, not reflection.
For the rest of America, Campaign ’04 showed that most voters simply wish to hear the candidates in their own words, without filters and without spin.
That’s not such a bad thing.