Josh Kurtz: The ‘Seinfeld’ Election

My most vivid memory of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 was carrying a boom box around New York City on a rainy Saturday afternoon so my wife and I wouldn’t miss a thing as we did a bunch of errands and hit a couple of social gatherings. It seemed that important. 

We don’t yet know if the Senate Judiciary Committee will have a full-on hearing Monday featuring Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accuses him of sexually assaulting her 35 years ago, when both were in high school. But if it does happen, it will be a singular moment in American history – and every bit as riveting as when Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her just as he was about to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. What else is happening next Monday? Oh yes, the single, solitary, hour-long televised debate between Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his challenger, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (D).

As it is, the gubernatorial election isn’t registering with too many people; Marylanders, if they’re paying attention to politics at all, find themselves distracted by the overwhelming and unending dramas playing out in Our Nation’s Capital.

But here’s a hunch: If something is going on with the Judiciary Committee on Monday, even if it’s just Kavanaugh testifying alone and indignant senators playing for the cameras, alarmingly few people will pay attention to the gubernatorial debate.

For the Jealous campaign, it’s another opportunity wasted. One hour, one stinking hour, for Jealous to appear on the same stage as Hogan, to make the case to voters for why they should fire Hogan and hire him. It’ll be over before anyone knows it – and it’ll be tough for Jealous to engage Hogan again in such a meaningful way during the last six weeks of the election.

They must get tired of high-fiving and chest-bumping over at Hogan headquarters these days.

In the six-plus years I was politics editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, we had three rules when it came to covering campaigns: Don’t write about candidates demanding that their opponents’ misleading ads get pulled. Don’t write about candidates taunting their opponents to return so-called tainted contributions. And don’t write about debates over debates. Why? Because they’re all silly, petty squabbles, black holes of inconsequential he-said, she-said accusations that don’t tell you anything about the candidates and their backgrounds and the messages they are peddling.  

Of course, we’ve had a couple of epic debates over debates here in Maryland over the past few weeks – so epic that we couldn’t ignore them here at Maryland Matters, much as we may have wanted to. We have no interest in re-litigating them here. But we will observe, as others have, that it’s a disservice to the voters to have only one debate – and one so far out from Election Day.  

In political circles and in many news accounts, the Jealous campaign is being portrayed these days as The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. There’s certainly abundant evidence that the campaign has made plenty of missteps since winning the Democratic primary rather impressively in late June. In media horse race parlance, Hogan, the beneficiary of millions in campaign advertising while Jealous hasn’t had two nickels to rub together, has “won” every week – and, the Republican camp would no doubt argue, every day – since June 26.

But think about some of those missteps for a minute: Refusing to go to the Maryland Association of Counties annual convention. Dropping the F bomb at a news conference. Referring to the Maryland Court of Appeals as the state’s Supreme Court. Botching the debate negotiations. Then awkwardly trying to keep Tamela Baker of the Hagerstown Herald-Mail off the debate panel. These were unforced and unfortunate errors, to be sure. And the Hogan press operation is brutally effective about erecting a neon arrow next to every Jealous mistake and augmenting it with a memorable schoolyard swipe.

But how many of these missteps were really important to real voters? How many ever registered with real voters and not just political insiders? Why were my social media accounts filling up with faux (and sometimes real) outrage about these blunders? Jealous’ policy proposals are fair game. And make no mistake, Republicans have done an excellent job of casting doubt and spreading fear about them – ironic, considering Hogan has made few sweeping proposals of his own or given much indication about what a second term would look like.

Debates might have helped draw out the governor on this very question. Now, most likely, we’ll never know.  Instead, we’ve got a “Seinfeld” election — an election about not very much at all. We can hope that this changes over the next seven weeks. But we’re not holding our breath.

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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