Memo To Candidates: Issues Matter

Bill Scher

Today, the Omaha World Herald published the following op-ed of mine, exploring why the attacks on Sen. Barack Obama failed to derail his path to the nomination, and failed to deny him a clear lead against Sen. John McCain. Not what it means about Obama, but what it means about our politics, and what lessons other candidates to take from it.The op-ed follows below.

After last Tuesday’s primaries, Sen. Barack Obama earned the majority of delegates awarded through electoral contests, tightening his claim to the Democratic presidential nomination. Despite some late losses and rough media coverage during the past two months, Obama begins the general election campaign with a clear lead. He beats Sen. John McCain in seven of eight major polls taken this month, with margins mostly between 5 and 7 points, and the most recent survey showing a 10-point lead.

Early polls don’t predict final winners, as shown by Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 16-point lead over then-V.P. George H.W. Bush in May 1988. But at that point, Dukakis had not yet suffered the attack blitz questioning his patriotism, challenging his fitness to be commander-in-chief and exploiting racial divisions. Obama’s current lead follows a Democratic primary where he already absorbed the types of blows he would expect to get from Republicans in the fall.

What does that say about the attacks, and about the state of our politics?

Much has been made about Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright and how it hampered his ability to win over some white voters. Yet the impact appears limited nationally. Only 27% of Americans, in a May ABC/Washington Post poll, said Obama did “too little” to distance himself from Wright’s remarks. And a May CBS/New York Times poll finds 60% of registered voters approved of Obama’s handling of the Wright situation.

But the limited impact on public opinion may have less to do with Obama’s actions than with voter priorities. With more than 80% of the nation believing we’re on the “wrong track,” many voters are demanding a focus on issues and tuning out these manufactured, phony outrages.

An April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found less concern with Wright than with McCain’s position on issues being “closely aligned with the Bush agenda.” ABC was deluged with complaints after airing a presidential debate top-heavy with guilt-by-association attacks. And on May 5, CNN anchor John Roberts announced before an interview with Obama, “No questions about Reverend Wright. Our viewers want us to move on.” People are telling the media: stick to real issues.

But Obama has also faced attacks on issues, most notably regarding gas prices. After McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton proposed a summer “holiday” from the federal gas tax, Obama countered with advertisements offering a more detailed discussion. He explained how the temporary suspension would at best cover one-half of a tank of gas for the season, without addressing the root causes of the growing energy crisis. Instead, Obama proposed raising fuel-efficiency standards on cars and developing alternative fuels, so we can use less oil.

Like many Washington pundits, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough declared tax cuts to be “Politics 101” and warned Obama: “If that‘s your best outreach to working-class voters, stay home tomorrow because it‘s going to get ugly in North Carolina and Indiana.” It didn’t. Obama won North Carolina handily and battled back to a thin loss in Indiana. Soon after, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked voters whom they trusted more to handle gas prices. Obama crushed McCain by 20 points.

A Saturday exchange Obama had with an undecided Republican voter crystallizes the current American mood. Campaigning at an Oregon hospital, Obama was approached by a technician “torn” between Obama and McCain. He was trying to assess Obama’s trustworthiness, weighing his dislike of Rev. Wright with his belief that Obama’s gas tax stance was “honest.” After Obama repeated his rejection of Wright’s statements, Spooner encouraged Obama to continue doing “things like the gas tax” — signaling that more sincere discussion of policy was how to get his vote.

Will Republicans recognize the public’s desire for a serious debate? They were given fair warning this month. Voters handed two House seats in conservative districts to Democrats, after Republicans released coarse ads depicting Obama as a radical left-wing boogeyman.

The message from voters should be clear: failing to address issues affecting us is disrespecting us.

Sadly, President Bush’s crass attack launched on foreign soil, falsely characterizing Obama’s support for direct diplomacy with Iran as “appeasement,” indicates that message isn’t being heeded.

If you want to save Republicans from themselves, or if you simply want a civilized campaign, speak up. Tell national news outlets that if they want your business, then provide probing coverage of the issues, instead of reflexively broadcasting the latest manufactured outrages. When political reporters emphasize substance, candidates will comply out of necessity, and we’ll finally have a campaign worthy of our democracy.

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