I posted dueling views from Chris Cillizza and Matt Bai on the impact of reporting on the personal lives of politicians on the sidebar a few weeks ago. I didn't intend to comment on the topic myself, because I thought that both made good points.
Last week, however, I became increasingly irked by the willingness of reporters to serve as the conduits for opposition research. On Friday, we got stories on how South Dakota Independent Senate Candidate Larry Pressler (a former 3 term senator), owns homes in Washington and New York, but not South Dakota, and on Oregon's First Lady accepting $5,000 to take part in a sham marriage to help an 18 year old Ethiopian stay in the country in 1997.
I read both stories and immediately thought WHO CARES?!?!?! (okay the actual thought probably involved more profanity than is appropriate on a family blog).
Elections should be decided on policy differences. Are character issues and background relevant? Sure. Learning about a politician's background and values does lend insight into who that person is. I also want to know if a candidate has done anything illegal in the past (not his/her spouse or children), and/or whether he/she has been hypocritical.
For example, I don't care if a candidate cheats on his/her spouse unless he/she claims to be a champion of family values. Why? Because a person's sexual life is no business of the voters and has little bearing on the ability to serve effectively. By contrast, hypocrisy matters and tells us about how genuine beliefs are or are not.
Don't get me wrong— I'd prefer virtuous and moral public servants. But we've had plenty of unsavory characters who have been outstanding public servants and done a lot of good for the country.
But the press has gone far beyond that. The increased emphasis on horserace coverage that comes from outlets like Politico that focus primarily on politics (full disclosure: I wrote an op-ed for Politico in June, and I think their magazine has done some wonderful long form journalism) and the 24/7 news cycle seem to have changed reporters' mentality.
I don't get the sense that the journalists who report these "stories" ever stop to think— does this matter? Now one can argue that the decision on whether something is relevant to a campaign should be made by voters, not journalists. On the surface, that perspective seems quite reasonable, and indeed, appropriate. Yet, it ignores reality.
Every time one of these stories affects a campaign, voters become that much more cynical, and campaigns move further and further away from being fought over issues and competing visions for the country. Additionally, these stories deter potentially capable public servants from putting themselves up for election. Why have your family dragged through the mud?
The residency question is one that repeatedly pops up. DC homes or the lack of a home in one's state hurt House Speaker Tom Foley, Senate Minority Leader Tom Dasche, Senator Richard Lugar, and this cycle, Senator Pat Roberts, among others. Yet, the truth is, having a home in Washington simply reflects COMMON SENSE. Why would elected officials wish to be separated from their families if they can avoid it?
Even with Congress' often absurdly light work schedule, most members of Congress still have to be in Washington from Monday night to Thursday night or Friday morning. Why shouldn't they want to be with their families during that period? Should they really have to help kids with homework through Skype in order to prove that they still understand the needs of their home state and relate to constituents? It's nonsense.
Similarly, for long serving members of Congress, doesn't it make sense to own a home in the place where you have spent at least 50% of the time for years and years? Would we really do anything different? Does owning a home in one's home state really tell us anything about how well someone relates to the state? Of course not. It simply indicates a) that the person is a good politician, b) that the person has enough money to afford two homes, and c) that the person doesn't mind being on airplanes a whole heck of a lot.
Now, I understand why reporters cover these stories. First, in the world of 24/7 media and social media, they understand that even if they say no to proffered opposition research, someone will publish it. Thus, why not get the scoop? Also, they face pressure from ideological media (especially on cable news), and ideological outlets accuse the mainstream media of being partisan or biased for far less than ignoring this sort of story.
Nonetheless, I wish these stories would get less attention. They damage our political system, degrade the quality of our elected officials, and make it harder to hold a national conversation about what sort of government and society we wish to have.
People are not perfect. Let's acknowledge that every candidate has done or said things about which they are not proud. Unless some folly reflects hypocrisy, or clear unfitness to serve in office (for example, someone with a serious drug addiction or substantial gambling debts that might make him/her susceptible to pressure), let's avoid breathlessly reporting it in the last month before the election.
I'd even go further— I'd like to see reporters call out campaigns for peddling this sort of garbage, instead of having a substantive debate about the issues.
Where I'd like to see reporters (and debate moderators) more aggressive is in pushing candidates on the issues. To me, their opinions and truthfulness when discussing policy are a far more important indication of fitness for office than whatever small scandal or mistake exists in their past.