Two Pastimes Fit for the Compost Heap


By Howard Gleckman What a depressing autumn. The Beltway snipers, of course, put everyone in Washington on edge. And all the uncertainty about the upcoming war on Iraq just added to the gloom. In some ways, though, the saddest of all is the demise of those two seasonal classics that once captivated so many: The World Series and the fall political campaign. In past years, I have watched both intently. These days, I prefer to rake leaves.

Oh, I know that for some fans, especially on the West Coast, the Anaheim Angels triumph was a big thrill. After all, it was the first championship in the club's 42-year history. But let's face it: Major League Baseball's uniquely unpleasant combination of greed and stupidity has managed to make the World Series boring. Let me list the ways: Games that rattle on for nearly four hours, pitchers who can't pitch, players who botch the most fundamental plays, scores that would seem more at home in football.

MUD SLINGING. I suspect this was a World Series that will be remembered most for bringing the world thundersticks and the Rally Monkey, neither of which I ever want to encounter again. It was no surprise that TV ratings for the first six games were the lowest ever.

If anything, the political campaign is even uglier. In the last year of soft-money contributions as we know them, candidates are raising mind-boggling sums of cash -- $487 million so far just for House and Senate races. Hundreds of millions more have gone to candidates for governor and other lesser offices.

Unable to get any attention on local news shows, pols are using all this dough to keep creative ad people in business. Through Oct. 16, more than $672 million was spent on political advertising, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington (Va.) research firm. And with an expected orgy of spending in the remaining days of the race, ad buys will very likely top $1 billion.

TAKE A STAND? NEVER! And what are they talking about with all this air time? Each other, of course. Candidates have been taught to avoid taking a position on any issue at all costs. Instead, they attack one another for statements made or votes taken 20 years ago. Or else they attack one another for attacking one another. According to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, 9% of all political commercials do nothing but complain about negative ads.

Character assassination is nothing new in politics, of course. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were using it on each other 200 years ago, and the tradition has been ingloriously upheld in just about every election since. But beneath all the name-calling, Jefferson and Adams gave voters a clear idea of how their visions of government differed.

For the most part, American campaigns since have done the same, giving voters a mix of red meat and clear, if controversial, views on the issues. Think about Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale jousting over taxes. Or Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson battling over the role of government. Or Newt Gingrich. Or Tip O'Neill.

MISSING ISSUES. No room for those guys in this election. Pols have plenty of problems to solve but offer precious few solutions. The worst examples have been in races for governor. With state budgets imploding, voters in the 36 states where a governor's chair is up for grabs want to know only one thing about their candidates: What are they going to do about it? Will they raise taxes, cut spending, or both?

Good luck finding an answer. Maryland, where I live, is facing a $1.7 billion deficit. Neither the Democratic candidate for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, nor the Republican, Robert Ehrlich, is willing to seriously answer the one question that matters: What will either of them do to reduce that red ink? They're happily battering one another over gun control, the environment, and what the consultants call values. But real solutions to the budget crisis? Nah.

The same depressing story is being echoed across the country. So it looks like we'll go to the polls on Nov. 5 without a clue about how our next governors will deal with education, health care, or taxes. Just like the Anaheim Angels, who often wouldn't pitch to Giants superstar Barry Bonds, this year's candidates are terrified of confronting a real challenge. Instead, they just throw the political equivalent of softballs. No wonder the campaign is so blasé. Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington

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