The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was a sideshow, a distraction, a sham and a shame. So sayeth many of the brightest stars in punditry. How sad that we wasted so much time on what Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post called an "absurd digression." Barack Obama himself frets that we are "caught up in the distractions and the silliness and the tit-for-tat that consumes our politics," which "trivializes the profound issues." Yes, by all means, the profound issues are what the campaigners should grapple with. Grapple away on matters of substance and policy. Bread-and-butter concerns. Kitchen-table topics and pocketbook issues.
And what are those? Well, according to Obama and Clinton alike, gas prices top the list.
On ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos opened an interview with Clinton by asking how she can defend her proposal to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer when everyone knows it won't lower gas prices. "Nearly every editorial board and economist in the country has come out against it," Stephanopoulos noted. "Even a supporter of yours, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, calls it pointless and disappointing."
Her response in a nutshell: Jimmy crack corn and I don't care.
Clinton says she doesn't mind if economists agree that her proposal would do nothing to alleviate high gas prices. Indeed, when Stephanopoulos pressed her to name one just one! credible economist who thinks this idea has merit, she responded: "Well, I'll tell you what, I'm not going to put my lot in with economists." Instead, she explained, she's going to break with the "government power and elite opinion" and side with the little guy.
Unlike the proposal by John McCain, who also stupidly supports a gas-tax "holiday," the Clinton plan has the added benefit of punishing those evil oil companies by making them pay the tax, even though those pointy-headed economists say it will actually reward them. Big Oil would simply pass that cost back to consumers, and the "holiday" would artificially hike demand for gas so that pump prices would jump right back up. But never mind all that.
Oh, let's also point out that, as a matter of political reality, Clinton might as well be calling for a ban on the use of unicorn meat in dog food, because there is no way her proposal can actually, you know, happen.
Now, in fairness, we should point out that Obama opposes the Clinton-McCain proposal for many of the reasons stated above, and that speaks well of him.
But there's a larger point here. Clinton's new populist demagoguery is entirely symbolic. The "substance" is stage dressing, no more real than the scenery in a play. She's trying to tell blue-collar workers that she's on their side. The language may be economic, but the message is about values. It's I-feel-your-pain treacle gussied up as tax policy, devoid of anything approaching intellectual seriousness. Who cares if even liberal economists like Krugman concede the stupidity of her idea; she's taking the side of the Bubbas against all the fancy pants.
The same goes for the Daedalian debate between Obama and Clinton over health care that consumed many of the early Democratic primaries. In a riot of intellectual vanity, vast amounts of time were wasted on parsing the fine print of their respective policy proposals, with earnest journalists wading hip-deep into the actuarial tables, as if either plan would actually survive its first encounter with Congress intact. Who cares? We're talkin' substance here!
Presidential elections are not referendums on policy papers. Rather, policy papers are themselves mere hints, sometimes very poor hints, of where a candidate's priorities lie. This is not to say that candidates should not offer details, but let's do away with the charade that the dots on the "i" and the crosses on the "t" are the stuff of Serious Politics, while discussions about a candidate's "non-economic" values are somehow irrelevant. It's all the same conversation.
Whatever the true import of Obama's relationship with Wright may be, or whatever the proper weight voters should give to his view that poor whites "cling" to guns, religion and bigotry because they've suffered under bad economic policies, or, for that matter, whatever Clinton's "sniper fire" story says about her, it strikes me as absurd to argue that these data are meaningless but their stance on a gas-tax holiday is of enduring importance.
We pick presidents for their judgment and values. Anything that gives us a clue as to what those might be is not only fair game, it is the game.