Hopes, Fears and Democracy on Election Day

Posted: Mon, 11/05/2012 - 7:08pm

Gwen Ifill covers Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential campaign

A friend of mine who just moved to Mexico City emailed me recently to remind me of the importance of the work we do here at the NewsHour.

The friend, a reformed political junkie who once worked in network news, wanted me to know that she ran into an acquaintance whose work and professional life forces her to shuttle back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico.

"I hate that we're stuck with [cable] here,” the acquaintance complained to my friend. “I would do anything to be able to watch WETA [her local PBS station]. I was home for one of the debates and watched WETA and it was so much smarter.”

We won’t have holograms or magic walls, or the 50 states painted on an ice rink. We will have a cool interactive map, but the homesick American has a point. We will be smart.

This will be the seventh presidential election I’ve covered. I’ve been fortunate to see the nation exercise its franchise from campaign planes, diners, airport tarmacs, raucous rallies, front stoops and living rooms. I’ve been able to relate what I see for the Washington Post, the New York Times and – for the last four cycles – the PBS NewsHour and Washington Week.

Every four years, like clockwork, the people I cover and interview begin asking at just about this moment: don’t you get sick of it?

My answer is no. I do get discouraged at the tone, put off by voter apathy and weary when the travel grows too hectic and the nights grow too long. But when it comes to watching democracy in action, I never tire of telling the story.

Long lines at polling places? Bring it on. Unresolved legal challenges? Allow us to explain. Spin and counter-spin? I want to dig deeper. Even the endless blizzard of polls doesn’t bore me, because – used correctly – they give me a way in to discover what Americans believe and what they are willing to do about it.

In the beginning of my career as a political reporter, I was so far down the totem pole – working in the shadow of greats like David Broder, Paul Taylor and Dan Balz – that I was always sent off to cover the losing candidates.

After a few months of this, I imagined that candidates would quake if I walked into a room. I was like the political angel of death. Surely if they were being taken seriously, someone more important would arrive. I contented myself with talking to the voters who came to see them – who, then and now – almost always had something more interesting to say anyway.

In subsequent election years, I climbed up the slippery poll a bit, managing to actually cover a winning candidate – Bill Clinton – from beginning to end, and through his first two years in the White House.

Now I operate most of the time from an anchor chair some distance from the campaign trail. And although this election year has taken me all over the country, technology has made it simpler to follow the candidates and their surrogates. I find the questions I had at the beginning of my political reporting career remain essentially the same now. They are questions best asked of the voters themselves:

- Which candidate is speaking to your hopes? Your fears?

- How optimistic are you about your family’s present? Its future?

- Have you ever voted for different parties in successive elections? What motivated the switch?How much faith do you invest in government to improve your life? To make your life worse?

These seem like pretty basic questions, but they endure from cycle to cycle. Ronald Reagan won the presidency by speaking to voters’ hopes while reminding them of their fears. Bill Clinton won by repeatedly changing the topic from his own shortcomings to Americans’ concerns. George W. Bush successfully made the argument that government could be curtailed while still remaining compassionate.

And this year, both President Obama and Governor Romney have honed their closing arguments into a streamlined version of that final question – government’s role. Should government focus on cutting taxes, boosting the private sector and essentially getting out of the way? Or can government be using its big stick to regulate and expand the social contract?

Now comes the time to set aside the ads and the accusations. All elections come down to you in the voting booth, wrestling those questions to the ground. The rest of us – in the media, in the campaigns and in the endless political science panels that will be convened once the voters are done – are left to try to explain what this tells us about America.

Then, if we are lucky, we will gear up to do it all again. It’s like Independence Day. Fireworks. Maybe a hot dog if you’re lucky. Except it happens only once every four years. Make the most of it.


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