Horserace campaign journalism has changed very little since 2016. In light of the industry’s very public failure to predict Donald Trump, against all common sense, becoming president, something resembling self-criticism took place, but it stopped at the conclusions that too much attention was paid to Hillary Clinton’s email server (yes) and that not enough emissaries were sent to diners in West Virginia (no). Before anyone in the mainstream media had a chance to expel the useless, bewildered hacks from their ranks, the onset of Democratic primary debate season this month required the Chris Cillizzas and Nate Silvers of the world to assume battle position and begin launching volleys of articles into the void without learning a single lesson from last time.
The first phase of the 2020 Democratic primary coverage involved an inordinate focus on candidates’ quirky personal lives, a strategy that tends to fare badly when interviewing type-A careerists and which did not bear fruit in 2016. This tendency rose and fell most visibly with the chances of Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Blue Dog Democrat who can name several punk bands. O’Rourke’s poll numbers peaked at 10 percent in April, after his infamous “I’m just born to be in it” interview with Vanity Fair had just come out and he was the media’s favorite darling. He now stands, with $9.4 million raised, at just 2.6 percent.
By May, a backlash fueled by the aforementioned interview had begun and the same media outlets responsible for O’Rourke’s oversaturation started to hedge their bets. Over the span of two weeks, the genuine interest Gen X journalists had in Beto’s record collection turned to snide dismissals. The horribly graphic sex tweets mutated into weird projection like what The Daily Beast’s Margaret Carlson wrote in May: “According to my unscientific poll asking every woman I see, Beto reminds them of the worst boyfriend they ever had: self-involved, convinced of his own charm, chronically late if he shows up at all, worth a meal or two but definitely not marriage material.” This irritatingly common humblebrag is functionally identical to having an eighth grader tell you “I used to date Kate Upton but then she got fat.” As if to put a bookend n how much Betomania was shot through with ‘90s nostalgia and sexual tension, the last big Beto feature before the retrospectives started was a May Washington Post interview with his actual college girlfriend.
The second phase, which we are in now, strongly rewards a candidate having specific policies over being vaguely personable. A Quartz headline in April read: “Men with vague ideas are outraising women with plans in the Democratic 2020 race.” That same month, The Week was more on the nose: “Elizabeth Warren has a lot of policy ideas. Beto O'Rourke has a lot of baseball caps.” Broadly, this sudden shift in narrative is a positive development. Candidates should be policy-minded, both as a matter of civic virtue and because the anti-intellectual Trump routine will never work for Democrats, and the media should be focusing on their policies rather than their embryonic love lives.
Massachusetts Sen. Warren, whose campaign has been rolling out policy papers at a regular clip, has been the primary recipient of this kind of media attention, and her poll numbers have steadily ticked up (now at 15.2 percent) as those of O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg have dropped. Her proposals range from good, like a tax on the rich that would raise $3.8 trillion in revenue, to not so good, like her plan to instate something like the No Child Left Behind Act for struggling hospitals. But eventually, the offer of free media attention for any candidate who “has plans” yields diminishing returns. The big policies, like Medicare for All and student loan forgiveness, are already out of the bag, and what’s left is often just mindless wonkery.
Take O’Rourke’s proposal last month to tax non-military households to pay for veterans’ health care in any future wars. He cribbed this bit of sophistry from former Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, who distinguished himself during the Bush era by repeatedly and unsuccessfully proposing the draft be reinstated in order to own Republicans by their own logic. It is a policy idea from, and for, the mid-2000s. Wars aren’t officially declared anymore, meaning the tax would never kick in, and the majority of non-military households would pay less than $100. People were willing to spend more than that on flag pins and bonfires of Dixie Chicks records the last time we were visibly at war, because there was that whole deal with the bipartisan political consensus based on false intelligence and de facto media blackout of anyone with anti-interventionist views.
The offer of free media attention for any candidate who “has plans” yields diminishing returns.
The majority of Democratic policy proposals this cycle are not as outwardly hilarious as the $100 war tax, but the saturation point for detailed policy proposals has clearly been reached. California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is currently polling just under Warren at 15 percent, acknowledged this in a radio interview last week, telling The Breakfast Club “I'm not churning out plans like a factory, because it's really important to me that any plan that I am prepared to implement is actually doable.” While the “doable” part is a red herring — no one is getting anything done with a GOP-controlled Senate and a conservative majority in the Supreme Court — Harris is correct to realize that the jig is up here. Having lots of policies drawn up is more appealing to a certain set of the media than it is to the average voter, and the effect has been dulled by wide adoption of the “I have PLANS” ethos.
The bitcoin-enthusiast candidate Andrew Yang, whose signature proposal is a severely neutered version of Universal Basic Income, is currently polling at 1.3 percent despite having more than 100 policies for purveyal on his website. Yang was unsuccessful in creating an image of himself as The Policy Guy; political media was briefly interested in Yang’s weird online fanbase, but not much else about him. The most obvious counterpoint to the policy-first narrative is that Joe Biden, whose campaign message is that health care is basically fine as it is and Strom Thurmond gave really great handshakes, has yet to be dislodged from the number one spot.
The conventional wisdom going into 2020 is that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was too focused on Donald Trump as an individual and not focused enough on economic issues, and the current roster of candidates seems to have taken this to heart. Unfortunately, this is an overly optimistic narrative that conveniently forgets Clinton rolled out plenty of specific policies that a majority of the country supports, including a tax on millionaires and billionaires, debt-free college, and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
That last Clinton proposal, which was unveiled in October 2016, was described by Vox’s Dylan Matthews as “arguably among the most important policies she’s announced during her entire presidential campaign.” Wonks, particularly those at the Brookings Institution, love the Earned Income Tax Credit to a frightening degree, and they have a habit of getting so excited about the fact that it involves math and is very hard to explain that they forget proposals for its expansion have been a bipartisan cliche since the 1970s. Some candidates have capitalized on this: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for instance, proposes an extension of the EITC paid for by an increase in the capital gains tax, the details of which are excruciatingly spelled out on his website in what seems like purposeful jargon. Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker have all introduced similar plans to expand the EITC, but were smart enough not to put an entire white paper in their “issues” section.
Interestingly, an expansion of the EITC was a component of Kamala Harris’s LIFT Act, a collection of low-income tax cuts which was proposed in October 2018 and failed to interest even the wonkiest of wonks. It may be that Harris’s recent comment about the glut of policy proposals by the Democratic field is less a dig at Warren and more a recognition that she tried the same strategy and found that the window had already closed. She shouldn’t be faulted for trying; the political media is very easy to sway if you read the Vox back catalog and know which bands were cool when the median-aged journalist was 16. At the same time, the political media is fickle and its smarter members have the ability to detect blatant pandering after several months of falling for it. Fortunately, the element of risk in doing this is cancelled out by the fact that the primary will continue for another 11 months, which is approximately 11,000 media cycles, and no one will remember any of this next week.