Never has a symbiotic relationship between politicians and television been as obvious as in the past two weeks. First it was the 24-hour news networks, then the internet, and finally, the major broadcast networks that discovered that primaries, nominations, and elections could serve as the mother's milk of TV. They fill air-time, and the actors work for nothing.
Presidential politics used to be a once every four year story. They were mentioned, occasionally written about during the off years, but rarely were they discussed on television. Now we never stop talking about them. As soon as one election is over, political pundits postulate the next round of candidates--contenders emerge, assume their roles, and embark on talk shows tours.
CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews immediately assign reporters to trail the leading prospects. Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Larry King, and Bill O'Reilly book them for their programs. CBS, NBC, and ABC pick the most likely, and interview them on Sunday mornings. We (I still think of CNN as mine) use them, and they use us.
We play gotcha--try to tempt them into on camera screw ups that we tape and repeat every time we mention their names. Their handlers give them talking points, playing up their strengths, while pointing out, "and I mean this with no disrespect," every weakness of their opponents, "bless their hearts."
Politicians have become performers, playing their parts on the platform we have provided for them. Their teams of strategists, pollsters, writers have prepared them for their performances and hope that they'll stick to the script. The best of our anchors and reporters try to throw them off stride, and get a meaningful comment, but most of our journalists just sit there and nod, even at their most outrageous claims. (We really don't have the "world's best health care system.")
In this process we weed out the poor performers, and promote the viability of stronger, more artful campaigners. I do not believe that the best performer will necessarily be the best President. Over the past year, we've put a lot of politicians through the performance grid, and I'm afraid that, based on the Iowa results, the New Hampshire trends, and the remaining primary predictions, our November race seems to boil down to a contest between a Bill Cosby clone and a replica of Andy Griffith.