The public is, by nature, lazy. Humans (as a species; there are exceptions) don’t want to think any more than they have to, and only about things they want to think about. The topic’s importance is irrelevant; we want a hook to make it easy to remember which is which.
Entertainment provides a trivial example. A fellow writer, whose opinion I respect greatly, has asked me more than once what my fictional detective’s gimmick is. That’s what marketing people are looking for. The public doesn’t have time to distinguish whether the book’s good. What makes the protagonist memorable? Is he an alcoholic? A cripple? Blind? Deaf? Gay? Maybe some mental disorder that makes things difficult, but not impossible. Bipolar disorder, perhaps. PTSD is timely. Think of the heartwarming reviews that could be written if our intrepid detective overcomes his agoraphobia to find the killer on the National Mall during the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The mainstream media love this. The public’s inability to focus on anything too complex that doesn’t involve slot receivers, blitzes, or Cover Two feeds into a growing media trend: laziness. Reporters used to investigate cases like Watergate and Love Canal; now they’ll take pretty much what’s given to them.
The current Presidential campaign is a good example. Debates are televised more often than Law and Order (if you leave out cable reruns of Criminal Intent). A perfect chance to offer fair and balanced (oops) reporting on all the candidates, possibly allowing one of the so-called second-tier hopefuls a chance to break out of the pack.
No, that would require actually keeping track of them. Better to ride two or three obvious choices and say the rest have no real chance. The best part for the media is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t mention Chris Dodd in the same breath as Hillary, Barack, and Edwards, and people will think he’s not as important. That will keep his poll number low, which will justify calling him a second-tier (read: second-rate) candidate.
There can be no other reason for Joe Biden’s inability to get traction. Sure, he tends to talk too much. He’s also the only candidate who is willing to not only tell you what he wants to do, but how he’s going to do it. Everyone else just says Iraq isn’t their fault. Their plans for getting the troops home have no more substance than Dubya’s. Biden has a plan; has for some time. No one pays it, or him, much mind, because he’s a second-tier candidate.
Why is he second-tier? All he does is good work. He’s been a distinguished senator for going on thirty years. He’s often mentioned as a potential Secretary of State. But he has no hook. He’s not an alcoholic/cripple/gay/bipolar/amputee veteran. He just blends into the background.
Look at the front-runners. Obama’s black. (Sort of.) Hillary’s a woman. (Sort of.) Edwards’s wife has cancer, for Christ’s sake. Can’t get much more distinguishing than that, unless he gets cancer himself, which would disqualify him for health reasons. (Edwards also has nicer hair than anyone has a right to. You get what you pay for.)
The same thing happened in Tuesday’s Republic party debate. Wednesday’s Washington Post coverage spent about six paragraphs on the actual debate, then digressed into an analysis of Fred Thompson’s concurrent web event, and Thompson’s not even a candidate! (Yet.) But he’s easy to get reader traction on, because he’s the lovable, gruff District Attorney on the aforementioned Law and Order. It doesn’t matter who he is or what he says; he has a distinguishing characteristic.
So Joe Biden toils in the fields of the second tier of candidates. He’ll probably be out of the race after the New Hampshire primary. So it goes. Until then, he’s my guy, the best-qualified man for the job, in both expertise and personal conduct. Chris Dodd is also probably a better choice than any of the Big Three. If only anyone took the time to find out.