Is the phrase "Dingell-Norwood" as intrinsically funny as, say, "Buttafuoco"? Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts seem to think so. On ABC's "This Week," the pair yukked it up over Al Gore's charge in the final presidential debate that George W. Bush doesn't support the "Dingell-Norwood bill." Dingell-Norwood is an HMO-reform bill currently before Congress, and Gore's reference to it by its proper name struck ABC's Sunday-morning twosome as hysterical. "We thought, as a public service," Sam gleefully intoned, "we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are." Then he launched into a highly sarcastic biographical briefing, telling us everything we could ever want to know about Michigan Representative John Dingell and Georgia Representative Charlie Norwood. Dingell's father, Sam noted, was also a congressman. Norwood, it turns out, served in Vietnam.
Incredibly, though, Sam managed to say all this without providing any information about the one thing that actually matters--what the Dingell-Norwood bill says. Fellow panelist George Stephanopoulos gallantly tried to address that issue, but Cokie cut him off:
Roberts: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.Stephanopoulos: Why not?
These people are insane. And they're not alone. Gore was also mocked on Fox News Sunday, CNN's "Capital Gang," "The McLaughlin Group," and a half-dozen other shows. The pundits' point, of course, was to remind voters what a lousy campaigner Gore is. But the real value of the Dingell-Norwood episode was to remind us how pathetically the press--particularly the Sunday talk-show crowd- -has botched coverage of this campaign.
To begin with, the premise of the Dingell-Norwood jokes--that voters don't care about the specifics of issues--isn't entirely correct. In 1992, certainly, voters didn't always grasp the exact details of what the candidates were proposing. But polls then showed they appreciated the specificity; in fact, it was one reason they took to Bill Clinton, who was famous for trotting out acronyms and policy jargon, as opposed to President Bush, who seemed indifferent to domestic policy.
But, for the sake of argument, let's concede the pundits' point. So what? Surely some of the time spent laughing over the fact that voters didn't understand Gore's point about Dingell-Norwood could have been spent telling voters what the message was supposed to be--and why it matters.
The pundits could have noted, for starters, that Dingell-Norwood is not just any old piece of HMO legislation. It is by far the strongest of the proposals before Congress--one that allows patients to sue HMOs. Just moments before Gore's question, Bush had pledged support for a "national patients' bill of rights" and boasted that he wanted to give patients the right to sue insurance companies. Yet Bush actually opposed such measures in Texas. Gore's question raised--or should have raised--the following questions from the commentariat: Has Bush changed his position on HMO protection? Or is he misleading people about what he really thinks?
And, speaking of misleading, Bush had trotted out one of his favorite tropes--that, unlike the vice president, he could bring "a different kind of leadership" to the issue and "put partisanship aside." But Dingell-Norwood is a bipartisan bill. Its chief proponent (Norwood) is a Republican. The measure actually passed the House, where Republicans hold a majority. The reason it's not law is that the Republican leadership has bottled it up in conference committee. A true bipartisan would do what Gore has done but Bush won't: embrace this bill and call upon Republican leaders to release it.
None of this appears to have occurred to Sam and Cokie, whose brief exchange offered a case study in how the media has debased this year's election. Not only was it a classic example of horse-race speculation crowding out substance, it also demonstrated how unwilling the pundits are to make pronouncements on matters of policy--either out of sheer laziness or inability to grasp the most basic facts of lawmaking--even as they feel completely free to engage in witless banter about the candidates' personalities and backgrounds. It showed, once again, how pundits acknowledge only candidate flaws that play to stereotypes--in this case, Gore's stiffness as a campaigner. And, of course, it revealed the extent to which pundits tailor their pronouncements to the whims of public opinion, reasoning backward after first reading the polls. It's no coincidence that the Dingell-Norwood jokes reached their crescendo on the same day the first post-debate polls showed Bush widening his lead over Gore.
Luckily, there's one media heavyweight willing to give this campaign the serious coverage it deserves: David Letterman, the man who made "Buttafuoco" a gag word. Two days after the debate, Bush visited CBS's "Late Show" and was grilled by Letterman about his record on the environment and capital punishment. It was a departure from Dave's normal shtick, and it didn't make for a terribly entertaining show. But, then, who needs late-night comedians when Sam and Cokie are around?
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.