Commentary: Election coverage focused too much on gaffe, not on issues

The Kansas City StarNovember 4, 2012 

Missouri’s sad descent into presidential-election irrelevancy has at least one side benefit: We’ve been spared the deluge of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney political ads polluting the evening news.

But — like the rest of America — we have watched the election season unfold in debates and in news accounts. And what we’ve seen is actually pretty troubling: campaigns focused to an unhelpful degree on what the candidates have said, not necessarily what they want to do.

Call it the gaffe of the day: binders, bayonets, Big Bird, battleship. You didn’t build that. The 47 percent. Corporations are people. Back in chains, y’all. Barely a single 2012 campaign day has passed without 1) a poorly worded phrase or statement, 2) immediate, stunned anger from the other side, and 3) a social media explosion of snark and sarcasm that dies out just in time for the cycle to repeat.

Words are important, of course. Sometimes — U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s comments on rape and abortion come to mind — they are critical tools in understanding what a candidate thinks.

Other times words can distract voters from the real issues at hand.

Consider the GOP’s bitter criticism of the explanations following the attack on the American consulate in Libya on Sept. 11. Republicans have pounced on the initial White House suggestion that an offensive video, rather than an organized terror attack, was responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi.

It’s true that the Obama administration’s explanations have been inconsistent. But which is more important — the actual attack or what the White House said about it later?

Surely the real issue is the government’s abject failure to protect American citizens, not what the government called it. Whether it was a coordinated terror attack or a spontaneous, movie-provoked riot matters little to those who died — and doesn’t change the need to immediately improve lax security at American outposts around the world.

Someone should ask Obama about that.

Even Akin deserves a bit of a break. The Twitter-verse giggled after he suggested opponent Sen. Claire McCaskill wasn’t “ladylike” in their first debate, but in almost any other context the remark would have passed without notice.

Better, perhaps, to focus on Akin’s voting record — and McCaskill’s — than on his verbal clumsiness. The two candidates have cast their votes in dramatically different ways.

Akin voted against the prescription drug benefit in Medicare. Good idea or not? McCaskill voted for the 2009 stimulus. A wise vote, or not? (Full voting records for both can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov.)

The most important words a politician uses are “aye” and “nay,” something to keep in mind as you make your voice heard in less than two weeks.

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