I can’t pinpoint precisely when Presidential politics turned into a game, but I can tell you who owns the casino.
Flashback: Halfway through the Nixon v. McGovern campaign of 1972 — ancient history, but bear with me — Vice President Spiro Agnew arrived in Los Angeles prepared to answer reporters’ questions about the Vietnam war, Nixon’s new economic policy, and a host of other major issues (including the Watergate break-in five months earlier). Instead, the first question asked by a local TV reporter was whether the Vice President was planning to run for president in 1976.
As Agnew’s press secretary at the time I’d long since learned to expect the unexpected when the man was provoked by what he regarded as nattering nabobs. What followed was true to form: A glare, a clearing of the throat, then: “In ten years of holding press conferences on a local, state and national level,” said the Vice President, “that is absolutely the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked.”
All of which came to mind last week when I tuned in to hear CNN’s Candy Crowley ask Vice President Joe Biden the same stupid question: Was Biden, in his campaign travel this year, laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2016?
For Crowley, of course, the question was anything but stupid. It was smart television, what she’s paid to do. That whatever answer Biden gave – it was predictably vapid – would shed no light on the issues and substance of the current campaign made no difference. As a political correspondent for a cable news network, her job is to give the dull grind of a presidential campaign the casino touch.
It’s all about the game – the ratings game – and second only to controversy, there’s nothing like speculation to entertain an audience, raise the numbers that keep sponsors happy. What value would those vacuous candidate “debates” be without a covey of instant analysts and partisan touts coming on to tell us who won, who lost, who held the hot hand, who crapped out.
In their book The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein deplore the impact that pollsters and spin doctors have had on our political system, blurring the line between running for and holding office. All to the good, as far as the boys (and girls) on the Permanent Campaign Bus are concerned.
Joe Biden running in 2016? Why should this question come up now? The answer is that having exhausted the list of prospects for the 2012 race, there was nowhere else to go. Remember Trump, Daniels, Barbour, Palin, Christie?
The last named, you’ll recall, became so tired of telling reporters he wasn’t going to run that he famously asked, “What do I have to do to convince you? Commit suicide?”
And if a non-candidate did in fact kill himself to end speculation about his running, what then? No problem. I can hear Chris Matthews now: “Good campaign move.”
Sound Bite to Remember (1972)
“He’s a Democrat. What would you expect him to say, ‘Kiss my elephant’?”
— Campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz explaining why his candidate George McGovern told an obnoxious heckler to ‘kiss my ass’