Julian Zelizer: Taking It To The People

Roundup: Historians' Take

There has been a lot of buzz today that Barack Obama is going too far with his thirty minute television commercial. Reporters have speculated about whether it shows Obama's arrogance, or extravagance, and if this move is just overkill. Will Americans react badly to thirty minutes of Obama? Why is this necessary?
We should not be so quick to dismiss what Obama is doing. We must first remember that Obama's tactic is nothing new. There is precedent for candidates to purchase national television airtime at some point in the election cycle.

There are some famous examples. During the Republican primaries in 1976, Ronald Reagan, who had gone on the national airwaves in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater (as had Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 with their own campaigns), purchased time so that he could rail against the foreign policies of President Gerald Ford. Reagan's 1976 commercial was crucial to persuading some Republican voters in key primary states that Reagan, and the conservative movement, offered a superior vision of America's role in the world. Independent candidate Ross Perot used this tactic as well in the 1992 election, relying on television to counteract the power of the two-party establishment and to give himself the time to make arguments about the threats from deficits and free trade.

Though the show will be slickly packaged and carefully staged, there are benefits to this kind of program in the modern age. Most important, it offers candidates the opportunity to make their case directly to the voters and with a substantial block of time. Rather than hearing about the candidates through reporters and pundits, or relying on shallow thirty second spots, the half-hour show offers the opportunity for more substance.

Even with the countless hours of television coverage, we hear less from the candidates themselves. Some will remember how during this year's political conventions, most of what viewers saw were reporters talking about the convention rather than the convention itself. At one point, James Carville was lamenting the quality of the speeches by Democrats. Yet they had to trust his analysis since they saw more of him than the speakers. The average sound bite for political candidates has steadily diminished since the 1960s, falling from 43 seconds in 1968, to 9.8 seconds in 1988 to 7.8 seconds by 2000. Reporters took up more and more airtime. Newspapers devote less and less time to the actual words of the politicians.

We should recognize that tonight's commercial is part of a tradition, and is a potentially healthy antidote to today's media environment. Indeed, we might use this as the basis for bringing campaign finance reform back onto the agenda and thinking about whether the federal government should fund air time for both candidates--or require the networks to give them time for free--so that they can spend some time directly with the voters, letting Americans decide, on their own, what they think.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.

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