Why Awful Campaign Flaps Happen

Look, we all know why these phony controversies flare up during presidential elections. It’s just institutions. First, you have tons of pundits and reporters sitting around ready to talk about the presidential campaign, but essentially nothing much is going to happen between now and the conventions, which are months away. Second, you have the cable networks, which have to fill up 24 hours a day, and often have very little else to do.

Third, you have two campaigns, fully staffed, fully aware of the legends of campaigns past — including the one about how Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush by having a then-state-of-the-art rapid response “war room,” and the one about how John Kerry lost to George W. Bush because he failed to respond to some crazy stuff fringe conservatives were saying until it was too late. Never mind that 1992 could be more or less completely predicted by the economy, or that Kerry actually did better in 2004 than some “fundamentals” models predicted,  suggesting that perhaps the candidates and campaigns pushed things a bit towards, not away from, the Democrats that year.

Anyway, all those people are hired to monitor everything said on CNN and MSNBC and FNC and the network news and blogs and twitter and the rest of it and to make something of it, and they’re not going to get a boost to their careers if they report back that nothing of any real interest was said today. No: they all have a serious career incentive to create this kind of flap.

So are we all just helpless before it? Mostly, yes, but not completely. First, obviously, reporters (and their editors) should think hard about whether they want to participate in it. Granted, some are going to; that’s what they do. But for the rest of us, my suggestion isn’t to react by being outraged about the outrage. It certainly isn’t to assess who won, or to ponder What It Tells Us about the candidates and the state of the campaign. The only ways to respond are to remind everyone it doesn’t matter (as Ezra Klein was doing very nicely on twitter today), or, even better, to just laugh at the whole thing. Just refuse to take it seriously.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.