Election coverage needs its own Etch A Sketch

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2012 - 7:36 PM

Sure, gaffes are newsworthy, but they shouldn't eclipse substantive analysis of the candidates' policy positions.

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Mitt Romney

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Mitt Romney's Tuesday wins in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia likely mean that the prospect of a contested convention is now just the stuff of political science fiction. Instead, the GOP gathering in Tampa, Fla., this summer will have the same informercial feel as the Democrats' Charlotte, N.C., shindig.

Seizing upon the inevitable, Romney primarily took on President Obama, not his primary opponents, in a speech to journalists on Wednesday.

A day earlier, Obama's observations to the same group about the 2012 race were almost exclusively about Romney. So rhetorically, if not quite yet electorally, it's on to the general election -- which is seven months away.

To fill the void, campaign coverage needs an Etch A Sketch moment.

No, not more coverage of the kind of breathless gasp over the gaffe by Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom, who told CNN that "I think you set a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we all start over again."

Rather, the media itself should shake up the conventions of covering the race. In Etch A Sketch language, we need to know more about the sharp lines separating the candidates on policy issues -- not politics or personalities.

Press reaction to the Etch A Sketch gaffe, and to one just days later by Obama, when his aside to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was picked up on an live microphone, are examples of how gaffe-tracking can divert attention from profound policy differences that are hiding in plain sight.

Sure, both were news and needed to be reported as such. But both birthed an immediate media meme that was nearly all about politics and little about policy.

With Fehrnstrom's random comment -- one in a deluge of daily campaign chatter in this era of 24/7 news networks and instantaneous Internet communication -- the common take was that it embodied the shapeless ideology of a cynical Romney campaign.

But what he really revealed was a bipartisan presidential campaign truth: In order to win, candidates tack back from ideological edges toward the center, where most voters are.

These same voters can be better-served by campaign coverage that goes beyond the gaffe to show how Romney has actually drawn considerably conservative policy lines, not how he might hope to erase them.

For instance, how would his hawkish talk on foreign, fiscal and social policy be a sharp departure from Obama's tenure and, to some degree, even George W. Bush's?

Some of the same pundits similarly simplified matters when Obama told Medvedev (well, really the world) that, "On all of these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved. But it's important for him [newly returning President Vladimir Putin] to give me space. ... This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."

While missile defense is much more serious than Etch A Sketch metaphors, Obama's Russian revelation was not worthy of reheating Cold War comparisons. Rather, it acknowledged a timeless two-term truism.

It should, however, have spurred deeper questions about the ever-evolving U.S.-Russia relationship that shouldn't have needed to be prompted by a gaffe. Among them: Is a reset button needed for the reset button, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously hit with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?

It's hard to tell, since there's been more said about Rush than Russia this campaign. Of course, ultimately Lavrov, not Limbaugh, will be more critical to geopolitical policy in Europe, the Mideast and North Korea, let alone missile defense. Further, how does Russia fit into Obama's plan to "pivot" from the Mideast toward East Asia? And is Romney's Russia policy substantively different, and better?

Heard much about these issues before the mic mistake? Didn't think so. And what has been heard apparently isn't connecting.

A March Pew poll found that 58 percent of Americans think the campaign is too long, and 52 percent say it's too negative. Worse, only 40 percent find it informative, and only 38 percent call it interesting.

Oh, and about the Etch A Sketch comment -- only 44 percent of those polled were aware of it.

There's no guarantee that more substance will turn voters into viewers, readers or listeners of campaign coverage, or vice versa. But Americans would be better off if campaign coverage put gaffes into greater context.

Indeed, letting miscues define election coverage, let alone the candidates, would be a mistake in its own right.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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