Ideas? Who Cares! Let ‘Em Read Fluff

Coverage of the Democratic Presidential contest suffered a brief lapse into substance the other day, but quickly returned to fluff thanks to Naomi Wolf, the feminist author and part-time political consultant. Just when Al Gore and Bill Bradley seemed on the verge of a debate over the merits of their respective health plans and their proposed stewardship of the projected budget surplus, the national press discovered Ms. Wolf’s exorbitant fees and her advice to the Vice President on becoming an “alpha male.”

To anyone who watched the Democratic town hall meeting in New Hampshire on CNN (although I admit switching back to the World Series once or twice), that event’s most notable aspect was neither the laconic slouch of Mr. Bradley nor the flop sweat on Mr. Gore’s forehead, but the wisdom and intelligence of the civilian participants. While the Granite State may not be the most representative place to hold the first Presidential primary, its citizens admirably upheld their duty to the Republic. Their serious queries seemed to inspire an appropriate response from the two would-be nominees.

That would be too much to expect from the national press corps, unfortunately, a group whose recidivism is as reliable as any gang of predicate felons. Every four years, prominent correspondents and editors anguish over their own tendency to ignore “the issues” and concentrate on such trivia as Ms. Wolf’s masculinity seminars. Then they go out and do it all over again, obviously unable to help themselves.

In the current election cycle, that traditional proclivity for ephemera is emphasized by a lingering hostility to Mr. Gore, who seems more vulnerable on style than substance. Many Washington journalists, long frustrated by the President’s persistent survival, regard Mr. Gore as a substitute target.

This widespread bias is hard to miss, but in case you haven’t noticed it yet, consider how Time magazine concludes its current scoop on the Naomi Wolf affair. Not only will Ms. Wolf’s advice fail in retraining Mr. Gore, according to the newsmagazine’s objective analysts, but “it probably won’t help him achieve the distance he craves from the duplicity and tawdriness of the Clinton administration.”

What the Vice President probably craves even more is some attention to the points he tried to make about health care at the town hall meeting. To Mr. Bradley’s great credit, the ex-Senator put forward a bold proposal to expand insurance coverage in a Los Angeles speech on Sept. 28 (which is available in full on his Web site, billbradley.com). And with typical laziness, the press offered few details about Mr. Bradley’s intriguing ideas while lauding him for his tactical thrust toward “big ideas” rather than Clintonian incrementalism.

Mr. Gore took the opportunity in New Hampshire to challenge his opponent on the specifics of his health plan. The vice president cited a new study by Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, who has carefully compared the relative costs and benefits of the Democratic candidates’ schemes. In a primary campaign that many journalists have pronounced “dull and duller” because Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley are ideologically similar, Mr. Thorpe points out that they “differ fundamentally in their approach to extending health insurance coverage to the uninsured.”

What are those differences, exactly? Mr. Bradley didn’t seem eager to discuss them at the time, and the press was equally reluctant to delve into such dry material. Is it true, as the Emory professor suggests, that the Bradley plan would cost four times as much over the next decade as the Gore plan, thus using up the entire surplus? Is it likely, as Mr. Bradley insists, that information technology will reduce health-care costs sufficiently to pay for his program? News consumers have no way of knowing, because Mr. Gore’s reference to the Emory study was mostly dismissed by the press as a debating tactic, and Mr. Bradley’s interesting answer has gotten almost no attention at all.

Meanwhile, the chroniclers of the democratic process have moved on to more important subjects, like the photogenic Ms. Wolf. Admittedly, there is something morbidly fascinating about the troubles of the Gore campaign, and one cannot help wondering about a candidate who criticizes his opponent as profligate while paying Ms. Wolf a fee of $15,000 per month (now reduced to $5,000). Gossipy stories about consultants are definitely fun to read, and they are certainly easy to write.

But maybe the journalists covering the primary should speed up their own cycle to keep pace with the rest of the campaign. Instead of postponing their usual self-flagellation sessions until after the election, perhaps they should start worrying now about the junk food they are feeding to the electorate.

Until that happens, however, hungry voters will have to feed themselves. Those who want to read the Thorpe study-and decide for themselves-can find it at emory.sph.edu.