A couple of weeks ago, in a column explaining why The State would not endorse in the Senate District 23 race between Jake Knotts and Katrina Shealy, after stating well why both candidates were unacceptable, Cindi Scoppe concluded:
One other thing has changed since 2008: Then, our editorial board endorsed in all elections; we no longer have the capacity or the compulsion to do that. Still, we felt like we had to try to do that in such a high-profile, high-stakes race as this. Unfortunately, we don’t see any way we can endorse Mr. Knotts, and we don’t feel comfortable endorsing Ms. Shealy. Starting next week, we will be making endorsements in some of the other high-profile local races.
She might have said that a different way. She could have put it, One other thing has changed since 2008: Brad Warthen is not the editorial page editor any more.
Apparently as a result, no one seems to be saying, as I so often did to the chagrin of my colleagues, The voters don’t get to vote none of the above. ONE of these people will hold that office going forward, and if we won’t belly up and say which one that should be, or at least which is the lesser of evils, then what business do we have expressing opinions on public issues the rest of the time? My point, to elaborate, was that in a representative democracy, most of the issues we opined on were things most of our readers had no direct say in. But they do have a decision to make at election time, and it’s a cop-out for an opinion page not to express an opinion on that choice.
That said, there were rare times when I gave in to the temptation to endorse neither candidate. We did it once in the lieutenant governor’s race in the 90′s. That was partly to express disappointment with the candidates, but also our way of saying how little it mattered who the lieutenant governor was. We did it one or two other times — in fact, we could very well have done it in one of Jake Knotts’ many previous contests. I don’t have the archives in front of me to check now.
And Cindi might have talked me into taking this non-position this time. She certainly presented a compelling case. Last time, I insisted we make a choice, and we held our noses and went with Jake (something we had never thought we would do in any previous election year) as a protest against the Mark Sanford-surrogate campaign Ms. Shealy was running. This time, as Cindi explains in detail, there are more reasons than ever, compelling ones, to militate against picking Jake even as a protest vote.
So I didn’t write this post then. Maybe the board was right on that one.
What brings it back to mind is The State‘s decision not to endorse for president, which I was sorry to see.
The endorsement for president is a different sort of animal. With most endorsements, the editorial board is writing about candidates that readers know little about, aside from what they read in The State and a handful of other SC publications. So the fact-finding, the interviews, that we conducted gave us access to information that the readers probably didn’t have. Even when voters disagreed with our endorsements, we could tell ourselves that the endorsement presented arguments they probably didn’t encounter anywhere else, and gave them grist for making a better-informed, better-thought-out decision. (It was also good for us as editorialists, forcing us to confront and understand the issues involved on a deeper level, which helped us do a better job going forward, beyond the endorsements themselves. You have to examine something more closely, and think about it a lot harder, when you’re going to take a position and share it with the world. Not taking a position allows you to kick back and not dig as deeply.)
With president, there was little likelihood that we’d add any thoughts that readers hadn’t encountered a thousand times elsewhere. And there’s a school of thought that holds that because of that, newspapers shouldn’t bother with presidential endorsements. I was at a rare meeting of Knight Ridder editorial page editors in San Jose in 2005 when Tony Ridder, president of the now-defunct company, argued that we should not endorse in those races — all it did was make half the readers mad, and it was a distraction from our franchise, which was local news and commentary. I, and I suspect most of the editors there (I was never interested enough to check), ignored him on that point. It was all well and good for someone sitting in California to look at things that way. But as an early-primary state, presidential elections loom especially large in South Carolina politics, and for the editorial page of this state’s largest daily — its capital city daily — to shy away from opining about it would be an insupportable cop-out.
It’s true that it does make a lot of readers madder at you than anything else you might do in a four-year period. But it also gives them a gauge by which to judge your opinions on the races they know far less about. The important thing actually wasn’t which candidate we endorsed. It was the reasoning we used to back it up. A fair-minded reader who was voting against the candidate we endorsed could still look at an endorsement and see how the board worked its way through a decision regarding which the reader has a vast amount of information. That would indicate to him or her how much to trust our thinking on races about which the reader knows next to nothing.
I know, you’ll say that partisans wouldn’t care about the reasoning — they would either give us a pat on the back for agreeing with them, or curse us for going the other way. But I submit that such true believers can’t be reached in any case. The only people who can be reached with reason are the kind who come to each race with an open mind, and carefully weigh all the legitimate pro and con arguments.
There are a lot of people like that, fortunately, and they tend to value endorsements. I learned that the one year when I didn’t provide a recap of all our endorsements on Election Day. It was early in my tenure as editor. I was trying to be humble. I was trying not to appear to “tell people how to vote” right at the moment of decision. The readers got quite upset. It’s not that they planned to go in and vote a straight State editorial board ticket. It’s that the list reminded them of the arguments we had presented, and reminded them whether they agreed or not. It was a very pure case of endorsements doing what they should do, make people think a little more about their decisions, and remember the thought processes they’ve gone through during the campaign.
Well, today, you’ll notice that list says nothing about the presidential race. Because The State didn’t make a decision.
You might not care a bit, but I was sorry to see it.
Not being privy to whatever discussions there were on this subject at The State, I can’t tell you why that happened. The paper offered no explanation. At no time did it say (unless I missed it, and I’m hoping someone will point it out to me now), we’re not endorsing in this one, and here’s why. All we got was this unusual piece that simply said whoever the new president was, he should “embrace pragmatism.” There was nothing in the piece that I disagreed with, except for the part when it failed to make a decision.
Taking a step back: The people who have gotten mad at The State over presidential endorsements over the years have been Democrats. That’s because, in my long association with the newspaper (and from what I could tell, for a generation before that), the paper never endorsed the Democrat in the general election. Not once.
This causes many Democrats to this day to call The State “a Republican newspaper.” Which is ridiculous, because over time, the paper had a very slight tendency (just over 50 percent) to pick Democrats overall. Not on purpose — each endorsement decision was made individually on the basis of the candidates and issues in that race — but that’s the way it worked out over the long haul. But partisans tend to embrace whichever facts “prove” that a newspaper is against them, so Democrats clung to their belief that we didn’t even consider their candidates for president. (Just as Republicans viewed each endorsement of an SC Democrat as proof positive that we were Democrats.)
Which absolutely wasn’t true. We considered them very carefully (in the four cycles when I was involved, in any case), but in the final analysis, we always ended up with the Republican. In each race, the reasons were different, but if you wanted me to give you a simple explanation, it’s that the national Democratic Party has a tendency to field candidates who are considerably different from the South Carolina Democrats we so often backed over the years.
But yeah, our record was pretty monolithic. And in the back of my mind, I had long hoped that sometime before my career at The State ended, we would actually endorse a Democrat — just to shut up the members of that party calling us Republicans. I wouldn’t ever have put my finger on the scale to make that happen. It would always depend on our honest assessments of the candidates on the ballot at the time. But surely it would have to happen sometime, right?
In 2008, it came closer than at any other time in my experience — ironically, in what would prove to be my last election at the paper, although I didn’t know it would be. For the first time, both parties endorsed the candidates we preferred from their respective fields. We had enthusiastically endorsed both John McCain and Barack Obama in their primaries. And they both went on to win. As I wrote a number of times on my blog and in the paper, this was the win-win election — I truly believed that the country wouldn’t lose either way it went.
But of course, only one of them could be president, so we had to choose (by my book, anyway) just as all American voters had to do. For the board as a whole, it was not an easy decision. I liked Obama, but preferred McCain. The publisher, Henry Haitz, clearly preferred the Republican. Warren Bolton was strongly, passionately for Obama. Cindi Scoppe never made up her mind, as far as the board was concerned. If I recall correctly, she wrote a column at the time about her indecision. I know Warren wrote a column expressing his dissent, because I urged him to do so, and was happy to run it, including on my blog. I felt good enough about Obama that I thought it a good thing to express that point of view. But as a board, we were for McCain.
That ancient history is about all I have to go on in trying to figure out what happened this time. All of those same people are on the board, and there is only one other factor, who is a total wild card to me — Executive Editor Mark Lett now has the editorial staff under his division, and I have seldom if ever known an editor more publicly guarded in his opinions. Since Warren and Cindi write about metro and state issues, respectively, I can’t go by any pattern of their columns to track their opinions on the national scene since 2009. Mike Fitts and I were the ones who wrote about national politics, and we’re both gone. Actually, the answer to my question as to why The State lacked the confidence, or the will, or whatever, to endorse this time may lie in that simple fact. But I don’t know that.
What I do know is that were I still there, I would have been pushing for an Obama endorsement this year. Pretty much all the reasons we liked him in 2008 are still present, and some of the things I merely had to take on faith back then (given his light resume, which was a big reason why I preferred McCain) have been borne out in action. To give an example of that: I never saw Obama as the kind of antiwar candidate that many in the Democratic base saw. Sure, he was going to get us out of Iraq, but George W. Bush was headed in that direction, too. (The big difference is that he wouldn’t have gotten us into Iraq, but that was irrelevant by the election of 2008.) I had heard what the man actually said, and he talked like a guy who was going to pursue the War on Terror fairly aggressively, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What I didn’t realize was that he would go after terrorists with a deadly zeal that outdid his predecessor. Nor could I have predicted how deftly he intervened in Libya to rid us of a dictator who had been a murderous thorn in the side of this country since Obama was in grade school. Do I have beefs with him on foreign policy? Yes. I don’t like the timetable for departure from Afghanistan any more than Mitt Romney does. But I also recognize the political realities that led him to make that commitment — not unlike those that had his predecessor headed for the exit from Iraq before Obama took office.
And count me among those who think the series of decisions the president made leading up to the death of Osama bin Laden add up to what Joe Biden would call a BFD. The more I read about it in the weeks after it happened, the more I wondered where that instinct for leadership in such a situation came from. It would have been very easy to cop out in one way or another on the Abbottabad raid. But Obama made the right calls at each step. That acid test told me a lot. It impressed me.
On domestic policy… well, I have long seen the biggest domestic challenge (next to our current economic woes, perhaps) to be the mess of a health care nonsystem we have in this country, which gives us worse outcomes and lower life expectancy than those enjoyed by other developed nations. As far from perfect as Obamacare is, at least this president has done something, and it’s too early to assess how well it will work. And his opponent’s platform is to undo it, even though he knows, from his experience in Massachusetts, that in its essentials (particularly in the one thing the GOP base hates most, the mandate), it’s the way to go.
As for directing the economy — well, count me among the skeptics who doubts how much a president, whether named Bush or Obama or Romney — can do to direct, or dramatically affect, the economy. I have no idea — and little faith in the opinions of people who are sure one way or the other — whether the stimulus helped (in preventing things from getting worse) or hurt. But I think we would have had a stimulus of some kind no matter who had been in office. If I have a beef with Obama on the stimulus, it’s that he didn’t exert more leadership in the Congress to direct the money more toward strengthening the nation’s infrastructure.
On fiscal policy — Obama is the grownup who is willing to talk about both spending cuts and tax increases to deal with the deficit. The post-2010, Tea Party-infused GOP is not. I may not be sure about the effect of the stimulus, but I have a really good idea who precipitated the lowering of this nation’s credit rating, and it wasn’t Barack Obama.
As for Mitt Romney, we never even came close to endorsing him in 2008, and I haven’t seen anything from him since then that has significantly changed that assessment. I don’t think he would be a horrible president, but I don’t think he would be as good at it as Barack Obama has been — something I wasn’t all that sure about four years ago, given the president’s lack of executive experience.
A terrible thing happened to the GOP in 2011-12 — no one better than Mitt Romney ran for the nomination. That is to say, Jon Huntsman did, but didn’t last until the SC primary. The State knows this as well as I do, which is why Romney wasn’t the paper’s first choice among that lackluster field — although when Huntsman got out, the paper reluctantly settled for him as the least objectionable. So did I, if you’ll recall — and there is no question that among the candidates still seeking the Republican nomination at that point, he was the best. It’s just that that was a very low bar.
Unlike many, I’m not bothered terribly much by Romney’s vacillation on hot-button issues that are terribly important to partisans, but apparently not to him. I actually think he is a decent man, who honestly believes he has the skills to “manage” the country. And I think he would do his best. And frankly, aside from one or two issues such as Obamacare (where I vehemently disagree with him), I actually think we’d see more continuity in a Romney administration than most people think — just as we did in the transition from Bush to Obama.
But he does not inspire confidence, particularly in the supremely important area of foreign affairs. Not only do I worry about his inexperience (as I did with Obama four years ago, only to be generally pleased), he has given us reason to worry with his amateurishness when he has attempted to assert himself internationally.
Back to my original topic: Though I’m no longer in that role, I still, from long habit, tend to view these things as an editorial page editor. And from the moment no better candidate than Mitt Romney emerged on the Republican side, that vestigial part of my brain has known that this would be the year to endorse the Democrat. Next time, we would like as not have gone with a Republican again, but this time was the Democrat’s year.
But… here’s a news flash… I’m not the editorial page editor any more, and those left behind made a different decision. That was theirs to make, and not mine. But I was disappointed to see it. As the months marched on toward this day, I wondered, Are they gonna DO it? But they didn’t. That was a letdown.