July 14, 2008 in Opinion

Press needs to stop ‘gotcha’ game

James Klurfeld
 

Enough already with the “gotcha” game. I don’t believe most voters are interested in playing it. Voters care more about the overall substance of a candidate’s position than whether there’s been some shift in it as the campaign – and events – progress.

The case in point the past few days has been Sen. Barack Obama’s statement that he might re-evaluate his approach to the war in Iraq after a visit there this summer.

“Gotcha!” was the press reaction. The senator who ran on the basis of pulling troops out of Iraq 16 months after taking office was now radically changing his position, went the spin. Hypocrite. Liar. Just another cynical politician. And making a tactical blunder, to boot.

Wait a second. It’s always seemed to me that choosing a president isn’t about finding the person with the most consistent position. It’s choosing the candidate with the best judgment. And often that means being flexible and adjusting to the realities of a situation.

The charge against Obama is that he promised to end the war on a specific timetable. Period. But if you’ve followed his statements closely, you know that’s not true. He’s always said that he would confer with the nation’s military leaders and not take precipitous actions that would result in making a terrible situation there even worse. But he believes this war in Iraq must end. That sounds like common sense to me.

Almost every report shows that in the past year, the situation in Iraq has changed for the better. Exactly what that should mean for U.S. policy is at the crux of the current debate among serious-minded people. The surge has helped stabilize the military situation, at least for the moment, and opened an opportunity for political progress in Iraq. But there are also legitimate questions as to how long the improvement will last, how long the presence of U.S. troops will be necessary to make it last, and how long our military can sustain the effort. The Iraqi government itself is saying that it wants a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

If anything, my respect for Obama increases when he indicates that he won’t be trapped by prior statements about how the war should end and will look at the facts on the ground to determine what is in the United States’ interest. But some in the press immediately jump to the gotcha game when it sounds as if a candidate might be changing a position. It’s an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction. Everything is about politics, about tactics – nothing’s about substance.

Much more harm has been done over the years when candidates have taken positions during the campaign that they then felt obligated to follow when they were in the White House, no matter the circumstances on the ground.

What has continued to impress me about Obama is that he’s willing to look at the complexities and contradictions inherent in policy options. And to talk to the people about them, even if he’s going to be hit with headlines of hypocrisy.

Is Obama just another cynical politician with no core beliefs, maneuvering toward the political center for a general campaign? I don’t believe so. The ability to knit together different coalitions – and that often means modifying positions – has always been a key requirement for politicians in a country as large, diverse and difficult to govern as ours. There’s a difference between political dexterity and political opportunism.

Rather than playing the gotcha game, we should pay more attention to the substance of what candidates say they will do and why. The issue isn’t who’s better at avoiding the gotchas; it’s who has the right qualities to run the country.

James Klurfeld is a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. His e-mail address is james.klurfeld@stonybrook.edu.


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