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Think Twice Before You Feed Your Need for Political Commentary

June 15, 2011

The recent Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire and the first stirrings of the 2012 presidential campaign have brought out a spate of political “strategy talk.” What is “strategy talk” you ask? It’s political news coverage that focuses on candidates’ vote-getting strategies and who is “winning” instead of examining actual policy positions and their implications. Strategy talk is an American tradition and a personal addiction. But this summer I’m cutting down, and you might want to do the same.

Political “strategy talk” is the bacon of American politics. It tastes amazing, and God knows we eat plenty of it, but it’s really (really) bad for you. (To extend the metaphor, political scandals involving sexual misbehavior would be our chocolate-covered bacon.) Strategy talk turns politics into a horse race. Who’s ahead and who’s behind? Who’s a smart bet for 2012? Strategy talk takes for granted that things like Weinergate are worth talking about, and goes right to asking: can Rep. Weiner survive this scandal? How is this playing in Peoria?

And yet, for all that’s wrong with strategy talk, I can’t bring myself to change the channel when James Carville is talking. I can’t help it. I must know what kind of cuckoo-bananas, down-home, countrified wisdom he’ll spout off next (see, for example, Carville alleging that Glenn Beck “wouldn’t know the difference between a football bat and a hockey court”).

I am helpless to resist strategy talk because it’s entertaining. Campaign season is the only time I sit down in front of the TV with anything approaching the kind of excitement that sports fans apparently feel on any given Sunday afternoon.

Given my impulsive need to consume more and more strategy talk, you might think I would greet an early start to the 2012 presidential campaign with enthusiasm. At first I did, but then I read David Gergen’s analysis of the recent Republican debate, and now I’m having some second thoughts:

Just as important, no one laid a glove on Romney the whole two hours. The biggest surprise of the night was Tim Pawlenty, who ducked an obvious opportunity to hit Romney over health care reform.

Just the day before, Pawlenty had attacked “Obamneycare” on a Sunday talk show, but when moderator John King repeatedly asked Pawlenty in effect to repeat the charge, Pawlenty refused and could hardly look Romney in the eye. And this from a candidate, as King said later on “AC 360”, from a man whose book has a title that starts with the word “Courage.” As a result, Romney went up in the eyes of the commentariat and Pawlenty fell.

Setting aside the truly awful portmanteaus in this excerpt (commentariat? Obamneycare? is this for real?), one can’t help but notice that there’s no real substance to this analysis. It sounds more like the commentary for a boxing match, with “hits” and opportunities to duck included for good measure.

So what’s the big deal? There’s an inherent contradiction in watching and reading this stuff. We all say that we want politics to be more about issues, but then we end up consuming endless amounts of strategy talk anyway. I can’t help but wonder, are these two things compatible? Can we continue to say that we vote for candidates because of their policy positions if all we do during campaign seasons is obsess over political strategies?

When autumn rolls around and presidential campaigns really get moving, I’m going to see if I can avoid those strategy talk roundtables that the networks seem so keen on. I’ll have to make an exception for James Carville, though, because I just can’t resist that Cajun accent.

If you want to know more:

  • If you dislike political strategy talk, you’re in good company: Kathleen Hall Jamieson has argued that it detracts from healthy public deliberation. See Jamieson’s book, Everything You Think You Know About Politics…  And Why You’re Wrong for a compelling introduction to this problem.
  • In calling Gergen’s analysis “strategy talk” I am drawing on the idea of a “strategic frame,” a term I encountered in a 2001 article by David G. Levasseur and Diana B. Carlin, “Egocentric Argument and the Public Sphere: Citizen Deliberations on Public Policy and Policymakers.”
  • Here’s another analysis from CNN of the debate that epitomizes strategy talk.
  • I fully recognize that not everyone consumes political strategy talk. Some people don’t care about politics at all. I’m going to go ahead and assume that these people don’t often read our blog.
  • If you like portmanteaus, I’m planning an entry on some of the worst (and best!) political portmanteaus (i.e. two words blended together like “smog” from “smoke” and “fog”) once the presidential race gets fully underway.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    June 17, 2011 12:43 pm

    I agree. It’s also ridiculously early. The presidential campaign should begin being regularly covered no more than a year in advance of the actual election. Like that’s gonna happen. Kill the eternal campaign with organized indifference.

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