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MEDIA CRITICISM:

Candidates Are Being Forced to Sing the Same Song

by Sarah M. Miller

What olive branch-waving, folk-song-singing peacenik has ever claimed that we are losing in Iraq because Americans aren't brave? None.
Amidst rumors that Gen. Petraeus's report on Iraq would be guardedly optimistic, President Bush recently spoke before an audience of veterans about the courage of Americans fighting there. Soon after, presidential candidates Clinton and Obama spoke before the same audience, and echoed the President's sentiments. It seemed the President suddenly had the Democrats on the defensive. Is there really a difference between them? All three seemed to be singing the same song.

It was an odd moment for the candidates, especially Barack Obama, who is generally adept at finding something original to say. But neither Obama nor Clinton were willing to point out the obvious: that if success in Iraq was a matter of military courage, we'd have won the war a long time ago. Really now, has anyone ever suggested that we are having a rough time in Iraq because the troops aren't up for the fight? What olive branch-waving, folk-song-singing peacenik has ever claimed that we are losing because Americans aren't brave? None. Yet before an audience of veterans, neither candidate could be up-front with the fact that it is the President's policies, not the courage of our fighting forces, that are the source of our problems. Instead, both fell into echoing Bush's post-card patriotism.

Why are the Democrats so timid? Because they're afraid of being misquoted and misinterpreted. Because, with some issues, it's safer to utter platitudes and avoid trouble.
Thus, Bush managed to paint himself as the true friend of the military, essentially daring Obama and Clinton to be nay-sayers. But why did neither candidate point out that a President who commits our troops to a long-term conflict without a plan is not their friend at all? Were the vets incapable of understanding that if a Commander in-Chief really cared about the armed forces, he'd be more careful about deploying them? Why are the Democrats so timid? Because they're afraid of being misquoted and misinterpreted. Because, with some issues, it's safer to utter platitudes and avoid trouble.

Americans claim to be tired of political slogans, and would like a little truth. But when a candidate tries to explain a point in measured, nuanced terms without overstating, and speaks knowledgeably, conveying a sense of balance, viewers get bored and change the channel. Every news programmer knows that lengthy paragraphs lead to ridicule, to accusations of being "wonkish," and out of touch with the common man.

Last week, I heard a radio talk show featuring Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, a man apt to disagree with about everything. However, on that day, the interviewer asked insightful, open-ended questions that allowed Mr. Huckabee to put his best foot forward, and give his ideas an honest airing. He actually sounded bright. He won't get my vote, but after hearing him out, I have a bit more respect for him. That's because the interviewer wasn't trying to corner him into self-contradiction, or hang him on a fumbled sentence. Now if journalists could display a similar attitude towards all our candidates, we might learn what they really stand for.


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This story was published on September 11, 2007.