Americans enjoy politics-as-spectacle— this is news to no one. But with so few substantive issues dividing the contenders in this year’s Democratic race, the media have taken the circus to a new level. The news-cycles of the race’s early months read like a VH1 highlights reel of pop culture effluvia: there was Edward’s haircut, Clinton’s cackle, Kucinich’s wife, the Hucka-boom, Gravel’s trippy ad. States were won and lost over YouTube parodies, crocodile tears, and the smoke-and-mirrors of pollsters. The cup overflowed—it seemed there would be enough vicissitudes and ad hominems to fuel Maureen Dowd columns and USA Today articles detailing “10 Reasons to Expect a Gore-Giuliani Ticket” until the end of time.
During those contest-packed months, the media got to revel in the day-to-day rollercoaster that they were lucky enough to both create and cover, leading the public by the nose to their hearts’ content. Monday’s headline: Obama up 10 in NH polling! Tuesday’s headline: Clinton ekes out 2-point in NH! Wednesday’s headline: Why Obama can’t win SC! It was heady stuff—you had to read the Times at breakfast every day just to keep up. Too bad it was irrelevant.
The month-long hiatus we are in now, leading up to the Pennsylvania primary on April 24, has exhausted even those most vulnerable to the media’s opinion-and-expectations industry. And for everyone who swore to never read a poll again after the false starts in states like New Hampshire, this dry spell is providing more than a little schadenfreude. A few months ago, Chris Matthews getting a little more boorish than usual could flip white women back to Hillary overnight, and a bad joke on SNL could chasten an otherwise shameless press corps into “gettin’ tough” on Obama. But those who tore their hair out, watching these glib idiots pull the levers of opinion, can’t help but enjoy themselves right now. The media are gasping like fish out of water, pumping their punditry gills without any electoral developments to process. Or perhaps they are more like be-scabied Dickensian paper-boys out on the curbside, hats in hand, peddling phantom polls that even the most hardened political junkie could laugh off. One sympathizes— it’s tough to have to sell a story every day. Consider the revelatory scoops the opinion-making commentariat has recently been reduced to ‘breaking’: There is profound anger in the African-American community! The Clintons triangulate on the economy! Mark Penn is a douche!
Rather: one would sympathize, if the media hadn’t so eagerly made this bed for themselves. They have a powerful vested interest in drama, and politics is dry stuff. Healthcare policy is boring. The flat tax is widely popular mainly because it can be summarized in a sentence. And by creating a self-perpetuating narrative of intra-party catfights and vendettas, the media can cover the race without covering it. Perhaps some Democratic party-sage scheduled these 40-days-in-the-desert for the media intentionally, anticipating the need to break the spell that the chattering classes cast over the public. If so, somebody give that guy a medal.