Those Senate races with the flaky soundbites and the flamboyant ads may be getting a disproportionate share of the coverage. That does not mean that there are not normal, level-headed, partisan contests taking place where the choice is framed as competing public policy ideologies--not a referendum on a candidate's stability.
CBS' Chip Reid took us to the Patty Murray-Dino Rossi contest in Washington State. She runs on her support for economic stimulus, health insurance reform and federal funding for local defense industries; he wants lower taxation, a smaller federal government and no more earmarked spending. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell covered another non-outlandish race, in Wisconsin, between incumbent Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson, a plastics tycoon from Oshkosh: "Spending millions of his own money on his campaign Johnson says he got in the race to repeal healthcare reform. Feingold is the only Democrat in the country running a campaign ad that touts his Yes vote." CBS' Dean Reynolds found the same clean demarcation: "Johnson opposes the new healthcare law as European style socialism; Feingold is its champion. Johnson opposes the stimulus; Feingold voted for it."
You would not know it--because neither candidates nor correspondents can bring themselves to use the straightforward terminology of Economics 101--but the two parties actually have a clear, sincere disagreement about the virtues of Keynesian remedies in the face of a shortfall of demand in the macroeconomy.
What should the federal government do in the aftermath of a recession, when consumers are trying to pay off debt and businesses are loath to invest with so many potential customers unemployed? Should it ramp up short term borrowing to prevent more layoffs and to pay for hiring to build infrastructure for the long term? If this election is about anything it is about that. If Republicans prevail that will represent a repudiation of such demand-side solutions to the unemployment crisis. ABC's Jonathan Karl offered a gem of a soundbite from Sarah Palin, that vividly presents the anti-Keynesian case: "Porkulus, stimulus, yes right! Shovel-ready projects, my Astroturf! Yes right, we know what they were shoveling--and it was not asphalt!" Karl did not present any pro-Keynesian rebuttal, let alone one with such rhetorical flair.
This is how NBC's Ron Mott summarized the Senate race in Florida, quoting Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, the frontrunning Republican nominee: "If you think the stimulus is a good idea; if you think Obamacare is a good idea; if you think runaway debt is a good idea--then I am probably not your candidate." Only the third policy is a dubious proposition on Rubio's part. The first two clearly delineate the difference between Democrats and Republicans. On the third issue, time will tell whether a Tea-Party-inflected GOP will manage to restore the balanced budgets that George Bush inherited, and then frittered away, from Bill Clinton.
NBC's political director Chuck Todd came up with a subtle explanation about why this election can be seen as a referendum on healthcare reform: "The bad economy has set the national mood but healthcare is the rhetorical weapon of choice for Republicans. They use it to tie Democrats to Obamacare or to make a point on government overreach or even to say it is the reason why businesses are not creating jobs." Todd revisited the issue when debaters pledged repeal in Florida and Georgia: "While healthcare is perhaps the most heated debate topic it is still the economy that is viewed as the top issue in our new poll. On healthcare the rhetoric may be clear but the public's views on it are very nuanced--and nuanced is something politicians do not do well 13 days before an election."
What other policy disputes have been worthy of mention during the last four weeks of campaign coverage? Afghanistan (not mentioned). Global Warming (just once, by pro-carbon Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia). Illegal immigration (regionally, in California and Nevada). War on Drugs: in the last four weeks there has not been a single report on California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.
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