The Lords of Trivial Pursuit

05/06/2008 05:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You've probably noticed that one of the most visible issues of the Clinton-Obama race recently has been the question of a "holiday" from the federal gas tax. John McCain originally supported it. Barack Obama strongly opposes it. And Hillary Clinton favors it with a windfall-profits tax to make sure that it doesn't end up even further enriching the oil industry.

This issue may even help decide today's Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

You may also have noticed that virtually every editorial board, columnist, and economist that has commented on this proposal has said that it's a bad policy proposal that will do little or nothing to help drivers, will make it slightly harder to replace our decaying transportation infrastructure, and will likely make the oil companies and oil producers richer.

What gets little or no attention is that this is another example of campaign coverage obsessed with the trivial, even when reporters had enormous opportunities to explore the significant.

Of course, each candidate is using his or her stand on the gas-tax holiday to convey a larger message. McCain wants to show that he is a member of the anti-tax wing of the Republican party, Obama that he will break with the traditional Washington way of approaching these issues, and Clinton that she better understands both the economic pain of the average driver AND their fury at rapacious oil-industry profits.

The public certainly understands this. Yesterday's New York Times poll  showed the public divided on the merits of the tax holiday -- 51 percent against it, 44 percent for it -- but overwhelmingly aware that the reason it was on the agenda was to send a political message. Seventy percent of respondents said that candidates were advocating the tax holiday because "it would help them politically," while only 21 percent said they thought the candidates were proposing the idea because it was "a sound proposal that will provide relief for Americans."

Politics, after all, is about communications. Sending a signal (which is what all three candidates are doing on the gas-tax holiday), is simply a short-hand way of communicating. So at one level there's nothing wrong with the way the candidates are operating.

What's puzzling is why the mainstream media steadfastly declines to provide voters with a broader context within which these signals can be received and evaluated. Since at least last December, pollsters have been telling the press that a cluster of issues revolving around energy -- gas prices, oil imports, global warming, the war in Iraq -- were important to the electorate. The public views an outmoded, outdated energy policy that's dependent on fossil fuels as the problem; high gas prices, global warming, and imported oil dependence are simply symptoms of this underlying failure. By the end of last year, this issue cluster was already the most powerful factor in moving independent and swing voters in states like California. This month, polling by Stan Greenberg is finding that it is the single largest contributor to voters' sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

You can be sure that the candidates got this news from their own internal polling. They each put out detailed and fully developed position papers, campaigned repeatedly on the issue, cut paid television spots on the topic, and made it part of their own positive stories and of their attacks on their opponents. And the mainstream political press yawned. As I wrote in January,  only three of the first 2,679 questions asked of the presidential candidates on the Sunday talk shows and presidential debates mentioned global warming. Though things improved a bit in recent months, only when McCain used the gas-tax holiday to reduce our nation's enormous energy-policy challenge to a trivia-sized bite did the mainstream media truly rise to the bait.