Will Reporters in NJ Play the Usual Game?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Will Reporters in NJ Play the Usual Game?

Four years ago, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler was soundly defeated in New Jersey, failing to expand his support much beyond his social conservative base. This year, Schundler's campaign thinks it can win if it makes the election a referendum on rising property taxes.

According to the New York Times:
This year, Mr. Schundler is determined to maintain his message of tax relief. "If, God forbid, those towers came down again today," said Sal Risalvato, his campaign manager, "Bret would blame the attack on high property taxes."
I realize that Risalvato's comments were made half in jest, but it annoys me, nonetheless -- and not because of the reference to 9/11 (although I suspect some NJ residents might bristle at the reference).

I'm annoyed because Risalvato's remarks remind us that money is only one of the problems with politics. The content of the debate in a typical election campaign is so sophomoric, simplistic and slogan-ridden that it's hardly surprising why so many people don't vote. A major reason why the debate has been dumbed-down is because all candidates have a tight list of talking points from which they rarely stray.

They've done their polling. They've done their rehearsing, and if what the public wants to know (or needs to know) isn't encompassed by one of those talking points, forget it.

I've worked campaigns before, and I work for a political organization. So this isn't my naivete speaking. I'm not shocked that Schundler's campaign plans to use every opportunity to shift the discussion to their favorite issue: property taxes.

But the fact that Risalvato is willing to use this 9/11 analogy suggests (understandably, in my view) that he believes Schundler can do so without being called on it by the media. Risalvato knows that the vast majority of reporters don't ask many tough questions, rarely ask good follow-ups and aren't willing to go toe-to-toe with the candidates a la Tim Russert (who is far from perfect, but much better than his colleagues).

So, in a certain respect, Risalvato is posing a challenge to reporters, columnists and others in the NJ news media. Will they allow his candidate (or any candidate) to control, spin or skew the debate to an extent that a 9/11-type event can be linked to their favorite issue?

Time will tell. For now, at least, my money's on Risalvato.

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