Go away, 2016 presidential obsession!

The media fixate on the presidential race while sequester cuts fester and real questions about Libya go unanswered

By Joan Walsh

Published May 13, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

No matter that Sen. Rand Paul can’t even spell Hillary Clinton’s name right on Twitter, as he insists the Benghazi killings mean she "should never hold high office again.” No matter that the former secretary of state isn’t officially seeking high office again. Despite it all, everyone is positive that Paul is running for president against Clinton, and so his trip to Iowa this week is big news.

So was Chris Christie's lap band surgery; it’s obvious what that means. Joe Biden tells Rolling Stone he spends four to five hours a day with President Obama -- we all know why. The attempted rehabilitation of George W. Bush was all about the presidential ambitions of his brother Jeb. Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration reform proposals are covered almost exclusively in terms of what they mean for his 2016 chances, not for U.S. immigration policy. And the White House schemes of freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, instead of being a laughable footnote in stories about his radicalism, are instead headline news everywhere.

Welcome to the surreal kickoff to the 2016 presidential race, which began in earnest only days into Barack Obama’s high stakes second term. Sequester, Syria, Afghanistan, the unending Benghazi story; all matter less than, or only in terms of, 2016 politics. High-minded journalists have been complaining about horse-race politics for my entire professional life, but our 2016 obsession is without precedent this long before the first primaries – and it’s destructive to the country.

You could argue that the fascination with 2016 derives from the fact that there will be no incumbent seeking a second-term, and no shoo-in incumbent vice president, and a fairly open field in both parties. That’s the excuse we gave for the early ramp-up of 2008 coverage, and 2016 campaigns, too. The entitled John Edwards ruined everyone's Christmas-New Year's break in 2006, and that was early.

But we certainly weren’t covering 2008 incessantly in 2005. I know that from memory, as well as a quick and dirty, unscientific scroll through Wikipedia’s news events of 2005. You'll actually find no mention of the leading candidates for 2008: no Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, Mike Huckabee, none of them.

It wasn’t as if they weren’t making news, or that there weren’t perceived front-runners. McCain especially was expected to run and lead the GOP pack. Clinton had to run for reelection in 2006, which forced her to (rather disingenuously) deny 2008 plans, but she was still considered the likely front-runner if she ran. The junior senator from Illinois likewise denied interest in 2008 – until he left the door open in a late-October 2006 "Meet the Press" interview. Obama reversed what he’d told Tim Russert earlier that year, admitting, when Russert said “it’s fair to say you’re thinking about running for president in 2008,” that “ It’s fair, yes.” Then the race was on.

Until then, though -- a full 17 months in that cycle from where we are now -- most political news coverage focused on Bush’s disastrous second term – particularly the issues of torture, Guantánamo, the mounting death toll in Iraq and the scandal of Hurricane Katrina. There was also a lot of coverage of the referendum on Bush that would be represented by the 2006 midterm elections, whereas 2014 gets far less attention than 2016 in today's news. In stories I scanned about the stands the eventual 2008 candidates took on all of those issues, their presidential ambitions were rarely if ever mentioned until 2007. I'm not saying no such stories existed, but they tended to be the exceptional sidebar treatment of a political issue, not the main topic in itself.

Conversely, I can’t think of a single issue that became a major scandal in 2005 – or later, actually -- because it involved a possible 2008 contender. Whereas on both sides, the Benghazi mess is mainly parsed in terms of what it will do to Hillary Clinton – who may never in fact run in 2016. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads already ran a scurrilous ad smearing Clinton over Benghazi; in Wednesday’s hearing the former secretary of state’s name was mentioned 32 times. Again this week, the Sunday shows were dominated by debate about Benghazi, including Sen. John McCain’s ridiculous charge of a coverup, when all we know is that there was a skirmish over Susan Rice’s infamous “talking points” – not about policy, or about the response to the attack -- between the CIA and the State Department.

I’m not saying the Benghazi attack has nothing to tell us about U.S. foreign policy, but the faux-scandal, and the coverage through the lens of 2016, actually obscures what its lessons may be. What are we doing there? How rickety is the government? What was the CIA up to, and did it rely for “protection” of the consulate on local militias that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, protect the Americans there? And how much worse is the situation right now?

Having written about virtually every one of the 2016 examples I led this post with, I share some of the blame. But so far I’ve covered 2016 speculation mainly to scoff at it; I’ve already declared that Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie will never be president. I understand a certain level of coverage of the GOP hopefuls, including the doings of extremists like Paul and Cruz, because these early 2016 skirmishes are proving that the party’s energy is still on its right, and predictions that the Tea Party overplayed its hand, and that moderates would rise to the rescue, are wishful thinking on the part of party moderates.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s huge popularity, and the chance that she could make history as our first female president, justify some of the interest in her every move – and explain the furious effort to destroy her with Benghazi – even though Clinton may never run.

But it’s also undeniable that 2016 "news" is crowding out plenty of issues that need attention, from sequester cuts to the discrediting of persistent austerity politics and policy to, yes, genuine questions about Libya. It's lazy, and let's be clear: Rand Paul's Iowa tour will have as much lasting importance as Michele Bachmann's Ames Straw Poll win. His linking Obama to "anti-American globalists" should consign him to the fringe, but he'll make headlines all week. The scandal over Susan Rice's talking points will go down in history mainly for their irrelevance to the real issues in Benghazi.

Just imagine what we'll be missing in two years when there's genuine 2016 news.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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