Iraq is teetering. New Orleans is a mess. Economic insecurity is on the rise. Health care costs are rising. Most everybody agrees that, one way or another, we nearing a point of political sea change. Yet it's been a silly, silly, silly week in politics and the media, a harbinger of what's to come as the presidential campaign roars down upon us accompanied by a fleet of swiftboats.
I'm not channeling David Broder, here. Political debates are never high-minded, ultra-civilized affairs with dueling white papers. Politics channels the id. Even the driest possible policy topics are in some basic sense about power, emotion, momentum. But the media's capacity to fuel a Seinfeld debate - a debate about nothing - has reached a new level. Too many politicians and political interests just seem to like it that way.
Even in a week of news on Anna Nicole's corpse and Brit's scalp, the Cheney vs. Pelosi and Clinton vs. Obama dust-ups consumed hours and hours of cable air time, hundreds of newspaper column inches, and Internet bandwidth worthy of the Oscars. Yet each was in its own way substantively irrelevant, a political feint designed to make us forget about something else.
Cheney vs. Pelosi was a retread of stuff we've heard a thousand times before since 2002. Why must we listen to it again? Because the Bush administration would rather not have a genuine debate about how to deal with Iraq. Clinton vs. Obama was interesting in the sense of each camp probing and testing the other so early in the campaign. But still, all faux outrage about an old personal political spat between David Geffen and the Clintons - because Clinton would rather not have to keep explaining her position on her Iraq vote.
The media coverage of these things never quite settles on a consistent attitude toward the subject matter. Journalists ask themselves - should we take this seriously? As political theater? As pure frivolity? This tension was evident on Wolf Blitzer's show on Thursday, when he asked guests transparently silly questions about whether Barack Obama was, indeed, responsible for Geffen's comments, and whether President Bush really was obligated to return Nancy Pelosi's phone calls about Cheney's behavior. There wasn't much separating these segments from the coverage of the tears of Judge Seidlin.
We've seen this before, of course, from Gore's earth tones to Kerry's war record. But I suspect the intensity of diversionary debates about nothing will only rise along with the political stakes during the coming campaign season.