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Dennis Myers: Candidates avoid issues in today’s campaigns

I was reading a piece on TownHall about why the Democrats were so slow in coming to grips with the sexual harassment issue. I thought this was interesting:

“The quick answer is that liberalism is no longer an ideology, focused on ideas. It is a sociology, bent on acquiring political power and social dominance.

“George McGovern was the last Democratic presidential nominee who ran an issues campaign. That was 45 years ago. Since then Democratic politicians and their liberal supporters in the mainstream media have moved steadily away from issues and toward the politics of identity. Can you think of a single issue highlighted in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign? I bet you can’t.

“For the most part, all the issues we have been discussing since the days of Ronald Reagan have come from the right – flat tax, school choice, privatization, private Social Security accounts, etc. Liberal Democrats have done little more than oppose.

When I was a press secretary in a Democratic U.S. Senate campaign in 1974, I remember writing a position paper on crime and also trying to get the campaign manager interested in a paper on personal privacy. With Democrats, they always wanted position papers that protected them on hot-button issues but were less interested in emerging or innovative issues.

Now, as a reporter, I get plenty of mailings from candidates, but they are virtually all fundraising mailings. I don’t remember the last election year I got a position paper from a candidate. I think I’m reasonably informed on candidates in Nevada, but I couldn’t tell you where Jacky Rosen or Dean Heller stand on Donald Trump’s plan to increase the size of the U.S. military or where they stand on the Veterans Choice program.

During the run-up to presidential caucuses in Nevada in 2008 and 2012, my newspaper tried to get the presidential candidates to give us information on their views of issues like grazing fees, the Mining Law of 1872, and water transfers, issues of interest in Nevada.

Democratic candidates in 2008 were fairly forthcoming and Republicans McCain and Romney contributed to the discussion. We got answers from five of eight Democrats and two of eight Republicans But from most of the GOP field there was essentially the sound of silence. “[A]s a matter of policy, we will not be participating in questionnaires,” said Fred Thompson spokesperson Darrel Ng.

I asked nationally syndicated columnist and author Jules Witcover his reaction, and he told me, “It astounds me that any of the presidential candidates would pass up the opportunity to reply to your questionnaire on key Nevada caucus issues, especially in view that they have spent such little time in the state. … Either some of them have already written off Nevada, or their issue response apparatus is a dismal one.”

At the time, I wrote, “Most disappointing was the lack of response from candidates who are all about issues, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. Paul’s office asked us for an extension of time, which we granted. We never heard from them again, though we tried to make contact five times.”

Some political consultants like to say the public doesn’t respond to issues, that they are more interested in political combat, charges and counter-charges. There is little support for this notion.

In 1981, Jeff Greenfield wrote a book, “The Real Campaign,” about the Carter/Reagan/Anderson race. It made a compelling case that what drove the campaign and motivated the voters was issues.

Greenfield wrote, “Convinced that the ‘real’ story was behind the scenes, the press as a rule spent tens of millions of dollars covering events that were supposed to provide Delphic clues to the unseeable future (‘who’s going to win?’), while giving short shrift to the flow of ideas and the underlying political terrain that—as it turned out—provided important clues about the nature of campaign ’80.”

That year’s campaign, Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was almost entirely about issues, and journalists missed it. If candidates want to avoid talking about issues, it doesn’t help that journalists accommodate them.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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