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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Democracy in action: What happens when the press does its job but the voters don't do theirs?

Would you trust either of these guys?
Idealists see election coverage as a journalist’s highest calling, exposing fools and frauds while delivering vital information that allows the voters to make an intelligent choice.

Of course, that assumes there is an intelligent choice to be made and that voters will manage to figure it out.

I’m always mindful of the great journalist and skeptic H.L. Mencken’s observation about democracy: With more than 100 million Americans to choose from, some of whom were actually smart and capable, we ended up with Calvin Coolidge in the White House.

Still, I always thought covering elections diligently was at least worth a shot even if it was the sort of shot you have to bend over for.

Covering an election is an awful lot of work, even if you’re not on the campaign bus. Reporters and editors spend months tracking down candidates, tracking down rumors, tracking down photos, tracking down campaign reports.

There’s so much tracking involved that you could almost mistake the ballot for the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Occasionally, at least, there’s not much difference.

We’re in the final weeks of a gubernatorial campaign here in Florida where honesty is the big issue. Unfortunately for all of us, neither major candidate has the edge in that department.

The two big names are the current Republican governor, Rick Scott, and a former Republican governor, Charlie Crist, who was an Independent for a while and is now a Democrat.

After decades in Florida politics, Crist remains buoyant, energetic and charming. There has never been a hand within a hundred yards of him that he didn’t shake, and shake again.

As governor, he was conservative enough to be seriously considered as a vice presidential running mate by John McCain. When that didn’t work out, he was pragmatic enough to hug President Obama—quite literally. 

The photo helped get him flattened by a Tea Party steamroller named Marco Rubio when he decided to run for the Senate in 2010 instead of seeing reelection as governor.

The more consistently conservative Scott was elected governor that year. He looks like a corporate CEO, which is exactly what he was. Scott does not have Crist’s charisma but he does have more than $100 million. That helped him get elected but he never quite won the hearts of the state’s voters.

Scott’s approval rating has never topped 50 percent, which helped convince Democrats that a re-branded Crist could beat him. The polls all underscored that judgment until Crist won the Democratic nomination and the two faced each other head-on.

Since then, Scott and Crist haven’t so much been slugging it out as spitting on each other. It’s an effective way to make your opponent look slimy but it has some pretty obvious drawbacks.

Crist’s campaign reminds voters that Scott started and ran a health-care company that pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud on a scale so vast it was fined $1.7 billion. Scott, who wasn’t accused of a crime, said he would have stopped the scheme but he had no idea what was going on even though he was in charge.

Would you put that on your resume?

Scott’s campaign points out that as governor, Crist got mighty cozy with high-flying attorney Scott Rothstein, who is now serving a 50-year prison term for running a Ponzi scheme.

At one point, Rothstein paid $52,000 to put a candle on Crist’s birthday cake. In return, Crist let Rothstein help blow them all out, setting up another haunting photo op for the Scott campaign.

The bigger problem is that Crist appointed Rothstein to a panel that selected judges. Rothstein later boasted that his influence over Crist allowed him to buy a seat on the bench for his favored candidates.

That might not be true, but the slime ads for both sides are extremely effective. One major poll shows that four in 10 voters think both candidates are crooked, and voter disapproval of each one exceeds even that bleak assessment.

The result is a near dead heat between two candidates nobody much wants or trusts. What’s troubling is that none of the questions that seem to bother us now are new.

The press did its job in exploring and exposing these foibles and follies on both sides, but one of them will be elected governor regardless.

It's easy to blame the bozos who put them on the ballot except for that messy complication of democracy: The bozos are us.

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