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A Suggestion for the Burned-Out Political Reporter George Packer

Across the Wide Missouri: Does George Packer really think the purpose of American politics is to thrill him?

George Packer: American Politics: Why the Thrill Is Gone: "The Upshot... [ran] an original and useful guide to the race, helping make sense of the state of play...

...The author, Nate Cohn, concluded, ‘It will be fun to watch.’ That was when he lost me.... The 2016 campaign doesn’t seem like fun to me.... If this is any kind of fun, it’s the kind of fun I associate with reading about seventeenth-century French execution methods, or watching a YouTube video of a fight between a python and an alligator. Fun in small doses, as long as you’re not too close....

There’s nothing very entertaining about super PACs, or Mike Huckabee’s national announcement of an imminent national announcement of whether he will run for President again. Jeb Bush’s ruthless approach to locking up the exclusive services of longstanding Republican political consultants and media professionals far ahead of the primaries doesn’t quicken my pulse. Scott Walker’s refusal to affirm Barack Obama’s patriotism doesn’t shock me into a state of alert indignation. A forthcoming book with revelations about the Clintons’ use of their offices and influence to raise money for their foundation and grow rich from paid speeches neither surprises me nor gladdens my heart....

The reason is the stuckness of American politics.... Beneath the surface froth and churn, we are paralyzed.... The same things keep happening. The tidal wave of money keeps happening, the trivialization of coverage keeps happening, the extremism of the Republican Party keeps happening (Ted Cruz: abolish the I.R.S.; Rand Paul: the Common Core is ‘un-American’). The issues remain huge and urgent: inequality, global warming, immigration, poorly educated children, American decline, radical Islamism. But the language of politics stays the same, and it is a dead language.... In a democracy the public generally deserves the leaders it gets. The populist surges of the past few years—the Tea Party on the right, Occupy Wall Street on the left—have been no more convincing than the ideas of élites....

It would be churlish not to end with a short wish.... A Democrat... should give Hillary Clinton a serious, sustained challenge.... A Republican should run against the Republican Congress. Its negativism has become a disgrace.... Some candidate should unilaterally disarm, refuse super PAC money, and call out the corruption of all the others.... Some big-money donors should do the equivalent... name the recipient of every dollar they give.... Clinton should give the boldest speech of her career, on inequality. In it, she should criticize the policies of financial deregulation that took off during her husband’s Presidency.... A Republican and a Democrat with national reputations should... announce early on the intention of making the other his or her running mate.... Political reporters should embrace the value of objective truth.... Policies and their consequences should be the main story, tactics the footnote... the differences between the two parties are clear, stark, and uniform across almost all issues. None of it is likely to happen. Any of it would make American politics more relevant, more interesting—maybe even more fun.

May I point out that of the eight things Packer wishes for, six--a Democratic primary challenge, a Hillary Clinton speech, a Republican attacking the do-nothing congress, a bipartisan primary ticket, a refusal of PAC money, a naming of donation recipients--contradict the seventh that policies and their consequences should be the main story? And there is nothing in Packer's article embracing the eighth--a calling-out of political lies and liars?

Packer has avoided acquiring the background knowledge he would need to be a credible and trustable voice on policies and their consequences: those who are under briefed are easily spun. So, for him, covering the horse race he claims to hate is pretty much the only game in town.

I do, however, have one possible suggestion: he should pick 500 American adults at random, and every day he should talk to ten of them, asking them:

  • If they have registered to vote.
  • Why they have or have not registered.
  • Who among the candidates they think would make the best president.
  • Why they think that.
  • Whether they are actually going to vote.
  • Who they are going to vote for.

And he can write up what they say. There's time between now and November 2016 for him to interview each one ten times. It would produce a much more interesting narrative than it currently looks like he is going to offer us.

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