by Paul Waldman
In 2004, George W. Bush's convention video told the inspiring story of the president successfully throwing out the first pitch at a game at Yankee Stadium shortly after the September 11 attacks. "How do you tell the story of a presidency?" the narrator asked. "The story is in part, but inescapably, the story of a man, which leads inescapably to the fact of who he is." Four years later, John McCain's first general election ad asked these questions: "What must we believe about that president? What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?"
McCain's campaign was inept in many ways, but he knew the same thing Bush knew: Campaigns, particularly presidential campaigns, revolve around character. Up until 2008, Democrats seemed not to get this, nominating one well-meaning, wonky-but-awkward politician after another, possessed by the bizarre belief that if he had well-considered and smartly designed policy plans, the public would eventually notice. Then the Republican nominee would make his campaign about character, and the results would be predictable. When Bush was beating Al Gore and John Kerry, you didn't hear too many Republicans say that we should be talking more about the substance of policy and less about who the candidates were deep down in their souls.
So it's strange to see the place we've reached today: This time around, it's Republicans whose nominee, to put it mildly, lacks the common touch—and as a result, they're loudly complaining that the press is too focused on his personal life and history, and not focused enough on the issues. Last week, they were outraged that The New York Times published a story in its "Home" section about Mitt Romney's seaside home in La Jolla, Calif., including some interviews with neighbors whose feelings about Romney were decidedly mixed. Lately, conservatives have objected to stories about Romney's business career, stories about Romney's religious beliefs, and stories about Romney's wife. In short, all of those things that are supposed to make Mitt Romney who he is are things Republicans say we shouldn't be talking too much about.
These complaints often take the form that the press isn't applying the same level of scrutiny to President Obama. But at the moment, it's more important that we learn about Romney's character than that we learn more about Obama's. The character questions—as Republicans were quick to argue in past election cycles—are supposed to tell us something about what kind of a president the candidate might be, particularly when it comes to events that we can't foresee. We know pretty well what Mitt Romney wants to do on taxes. But how will he handle an unexpected foreign crisis? How will he deal with Congress if Democrats succeed in stalling his legislative agenda? And which issues will he prioritize?
So yes, character matters. The problem is that so often in the past, the press has gotten its judgments about what aspect of it matters badly wrong. In 2000, much of the coverage revolved around the pressing questions of whether Al Gore was a liar and whether George W. Bush was a dolt. Bush's struggles with the English language may have been a continual source of amusement, but a little more attention paid to his own willingness to dissemble (which was quite evident during that campaign) might have served us well.
Republicans may not like it when the press pays attention to Romney's history and personal life. But the character test is one they've been all too happy to impose on Democrats, so long as the Democrat was too naïve about the power of issues to fight back effectively. Republicans have argued again and again that the presidential campaign is about which candidate is "one of us," which one is genuine and authentic, which one understands your struggles and likes the same kinds of food and drink you do, which one loves his country the most, which one hates hippies and loves Jesus. We live in the political world they created, and if that's not a world that serves Mitt Romney's campaign as well as they'd like, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.
Read more from Lean Forward: