Why the 2012 Campaign Is More Substantive, Serious, and Smart Than You Think

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 3 2012 7:15 PM

The Tweet Campaign vs. the Real Campaign

Forget Twitter. Obama and Romney are debating policies and ideas—if you are willing to look.

Obama Speaking.
When President Obama speaks, is he really setting himself substantively apart from his opponent?

Luke Sharrett/Getty Images.

Every few months, pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell write a column that combines the conventional wisdom of the moment with the thudding prose of a Cliff Bar nutrition panel. “The Missing Campaign Policy Debate,” which went live at Politico on Monday, hasn’t generated the same buzz as “The Hillary Moment.” But both columns made the same banal point. We’re getting a “divisive” campaign, not a serious campaign. Woe, woe is the Republic.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“There is little talk of the need to rein in entitlements, balance the budget and reduce the debt and deficit,” wailed the pundits. After Obama issued an executive order that de-emphasized deportations of younger undocumented immigrants, he gave a speech “without putting forth any broad set of policies to deal with immigration reform.”

Watch out for phrases like “little talk.” Who defines what’s a “little talk” in a presidential campaign? Columnists, that’s who! Schoen and Caddell, like Tom Friedman, make a strange strategic choice to follow the arc of a campaign without burrowing into the candidates’ plans. That’s not new, exactly. Matt Taibbi, who has been mocking Friedman’s glibness for half a decade, wrote last month that Friedman’s “analysis is to bloggers now what dick jokes are to standup comics.”

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What is new is a sense, among reporters, that the scolds are right. Also in Politico a couple of weeks ago, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns argued that 2012 is the “smallest” campaign in memory. “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter,” they wrote, “all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time.” My colleague John Dickerson, who’s covering his fifth presidential campaign, stacks Mitt Romney’s available policy plans against George W. Bush’s plans. The second stack is taller.

But the evidence of a stupid campaign is not prima facie evidence that the entire campaign is stupid. Here’s a useful way of looking at 2012. There is a Twitter Track of election news, a mardi gras of gaffes and Web ads and verbal flubs. Headlines on the Twitter Track usually involve phrases like “fires back at,” or “unloads on.” And then there is a Reality Track of election news, about the policies that the next president and Congress will probably enact. These headlines usually have numbers in them, so—look, no offense—you might have missed a few.

(Side note: Politico’s Burns, who tweets at @aburnspolitico, has turned the shaming of lazy campaign journalism into a low-paying side gig. “Here's a headline for all your future Joe Walsh stories,” he wrote, after the Republican congressman made his umpteenth cheeky comment about his opponent’s military service. “ ‘Marginal congressman with virtually no path to reelection says something off-key.’ ”)

The Twitter Track is constantly humming and distracting, and the campaigns keep it that way. The Romney campaign does this literally, with faux accounts that take advantage of the latest micro-story, or by piloting a campaign bus around Obama events for no purpose other than buzz-feeding. We have lived through weeks where Twitter Track stories led the news for cycle after cycle.

By nature, the Twitter Track story is meaningless, frothy, and forgettable. Look back to the “Mommy War” that broke out after the GOP decided to pretend that Hilary Rosen, a former top recording industry lobbyist and frequent White House visitor, was speaking for the Obama campaign when she was dismissive of Ann Romney. (You can still buy “MOMS Drive the Economy” bumper stickers from the Romney campaign.)

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