Fame vs. Quality

I was intrigued during lunch the other day with a couple of fellow liberal political science professor colleagues to find that Bill Richardson was the top choice for Democratic presidential nominee for all of us.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the voting public has not even heard of the man who has far and away the best governing and best political resume to win the presidency.  It did make me wonder about the nature of Richardson's supporters– the smart, ear-to-the-political-ground, NPR, professorial set?  I am genuinely curious.  Alas, with no more than 7% support in any national polls, it would even be hard to do the statistical analyses to meaningfully answer that question.  Matt Yglesias had a nice column recently in the American Prospect pointing out just how ridiculous it is that Richardson is being completely ignored despite his extraordinary credentials (which I talked about briefly last month):

We'll leave aside, momentarily, the fact that
Richardson is clearly more qualified for the White House than anyone
else in the race, since everyone knows that doesn't
matter. Just consider the bare fact that he's the popular, second-term
governor of a swing state — you know, the sort of person who back in
the day used to win presidential elections. And it's not as if
Richardson isn't getting attention because the field is crowded with
popular second-term governors of swing states. No. We're too excited
about the first-term senator from Illinois whose only competitive
election in the past was against Bobby Rush — and who lost. Or that
vice presidential nominee from a losing ticket…

But now we're getting back to the small matter of
qualifications. Traditionally, Americans have turned to governors to
serve as president, thinking that experience in executive office and
with complicated managerial tasks outweighs the experience with federal
policy issues that members of Congress can count in their favor.
Happily, Richardson spent over a decade in the House of Representatives
before becoming governor. In between, he was America's
ambassador the United Nations, wracking up a level of national security
experience that none of the other contenders can match. And did I
mention he was also Secretary of Energy? Too bad nobody thinks energy
independence and global climate change are important policy areas in
which it would be good for the chief executive to have some knowledge.
Oh, well.

Yglesias goes on to argue (interestingly, but not entirely persuasively) that having a chance at being president now is all about being famous.

In retrospect, however, Bush was less the last of
the governor presidents than a transition to the new era in which, to
be president, you need to be a famous celebrity. Mayors of New York
City are always famous, because the people who run the media live in
New York. Hence, Rudy Giuliani is a serious candidate (and even Michael
Bloomberg is considered a more serious possibility than he should be).
John McCain spent all of 1999, 2000, and 2001 chasing positive press
and became famous in the process — so he's a serious candidate. Barack
Obama has an extremely interesting personal story and was one of the
only Democratic successes in 2004, so he became famous and now he's a
serious candidate. John Edwards got famous running on a national
ticket, so he's a serious candidate. Hillary Clinton's husband used to
be president (you may have heard), so she's famous and she's a serious
candidate. Most absurdly, Mitt Romney happened to preside over the
Massachusetts gay marriage controversy, thus becoming famous and,
therefore, a serious candidate…

The overall pattern, however, is a striking
change from the past. What's more, the change seems driven almost
entirely by the national media, which simply decided unilaterally some
years ago to only cover people who were already famous.

Sadly, I do think that Yglesias is probably right in laying the majority of the blame for the media.  However, the media is always an easy scapegoat.  Whether its Obama vs. Hillary or Anna Nicole Smith, they just give us what we want.  Yglesias concludes, and I agree:

This isn't something we should
take lying down. I'm not going to tell you to vote for Bill Richardson,
or even that I'm going to vote for Bill Richardson. But, at a minimum,
I'd like to learn more, and you should, too.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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