Memo to Myself

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In this very accelerated political season with its very large field of candidates, the media seem to be getting ahead of the voters. What’s the hurry, 10 months before the first caucus, to winnow the field to a few candidates deemed viable–say, three at most from each party? With fewer moving parts, this very big story can assume a shape and a narrative that begins to look familiar and understandable. But in the process of writing that story, are we missing the real one?

Political reporters (including me) from virtually every big news outfit were on hand last night to cover a forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that featured handlers for Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Most of us had also been there two weeks before, for a similar exercise with operatives from the most talked-about Republicans, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

As a conventional political story, it did not disappoint. There were pyrotechnics between Clinton strategist Mark Penn and his Obama campaign counterpart David Axelrod. Which made for pretty good copy, as it suggested, more clearly than we had seen before, that Clinton’s troops are trying to make sure that Obama does not plant himself too far to her left on the war.

But there I go again about tactics. Meanwhile, what passed unnoted was the fact that, on that very same evening and in that very same city, another candidate–Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee–was raking in a very respectable $250,000. Normally, a guy who could haul in that much at one event would pretty much automatically qualify for what is conventionally assumed to be the top tier of candidates. But I haven’t heard anyone in the punditocracy giving Dodd much of a chance. And consider the qualifications of two other Democrats who are getting all but ignored by the national media in this race: the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, who has been the very successful Hispanic Governor of New Mexico. These are hardly fringe candidates.

Meanwhile, what seems to define the leading contenders in the media narrative, at least at this point, is celebrity. They lead the polls and the fundraising largely because of name recognition, and despite some obvious handicaps. Public opinion of Hilary Clinton registers well above 40% unfavorable, Barack Obama’s record in federal office adds up to a whopping two years and John Edwards wasn’t even able to carry his own state the last time he was on the ballot.

Still largely unaddressed, by the way, are any substantive differences that these candidates might have on actual issues–another fact that was underscored at the Kennedy School on Monday night. Each of the three campaigns that were represented there presented themselves largely along thematic lines: Clinton was experienced; Obama, fresh; Edwards, compassionate. In their questions, however, the students pressed for answers on very big issues, from global poverty to health care. Do you think maybe they know something about the voters that the rest of us haven’t figured out yet?

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