Hillary, Obama, Headlines In Search of a Story

What a year this is going to be. Nothing has happened, no one has said a word, and already Drudge is screaming the news: HILLARY PREDICTS: OBAMA CANDIDACY WILL DIMINISH.

What do you expect her to say: that it’s certain to grow?

The idea behind the piece, which appeared the next day in the New York Times, is that Hillary thinks that Obama’s prospects will diminish as people realize how inexperienced he is in foreign policy.

This is news? If she didn’t think that, why in the world would she be running against him? What else do you say about a charismatic newcomer who was a state senator two years ago?

The only other nugget in the story is that Hillary reportedly views Obama, the first term senator from Illinois, and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential nominee, to be her two toughest rivals.

Well, since both of them are ahead of her in at least one recent Iowa poll, does it take rocket science to figure out that she might see them as her primary rivals? Particularly when compared with a native son (former Gov. Tom Vilsack) who barely scores in his own state, and a distinguished senior senator, Joe Biden, who has yet to convince anyone that he’s in better shape running this time than 20 years ago, when he was just as smart but younger and hotter (politically speaking) and fared miserably.

Is this what the next year is bound to look like?

In a word, yes.

Hillary the experienced. Obama the fresh face. Hillary of the perfect girlhood. Obama who experimented with drugs. Hillary signs up this aide, Obama that one. Edwards opens an office, Guiliani forms a committee.

These are smart reporters, under pressure for a story about a race people actually care about, but with nothing important to say about it.

How about a debate about issues? How about something about something that matters, like, say, the war in Iraq?

When I started working in presidential politics, more than 25 years ago, it was because I saw campaigns as an occasion for the important issues of the day to be joined. Wasn’t it the 1968 campaign for the presidency that focused the country on the Vietnam war? Campaigns weren’t simply contests to see who had the best organization, but opportunities for real debate. For those who cared about public policy, a campaign was a place to make news and make waves.

The 2008 campaign has already begun, and because the candidates this year are more colorful than usual, literally and figuratively – a woman, a black, a maverick former POW, the hero of 9/11 – and because the incumbent is less popular than usual, it is likely to be covered with greater attention and intensity than most recent outings.

People are already interested, and that means more coverage, earlier on, than in past years. The question is whether the coverage will amount to anything more than the usual political junk. If it’s all inside baseball, all about who said what to whom about nothing, all about which organizer who most people have never heard of signs on with which candidate, then it could be a very long and meaningless two years.

But there is an alternative. Ideas. Real live ideas.

In these difficult times, people are looking for leadership. With the White House in denial about the state of the war, and the Congress planning parties and little legislative bursts about everything but the war, the campaign trail may be the one place where issues and ideas could actually be discussed.

What would happen if candidates actually said something interesting? What if they actually tried to engage – with each other and with the country – on the issues Congress is so adept at ignoring?

We might actually learn something, about the issues and the candidates. We might have a real campaign.

Until then, just put Hillary and Obama’s name in a headline and you have a story, even if it’s about nothing. Which most of them are.

Click here to read Susan's response to your email.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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