The Duty to Endorse?

In one of those quirks of American politics, New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states in the Union that hold quadrennial gubernatorial contests in the year after a presidential election. I wrote the other day about some of the Garden State’s political paradoxes, which have led to likely landslides this evening for both Republican Governor Chris Christie and a ballot measure that he adamantly opposes. But the race in Virginia, where the Democrats have a decent shot at taking over all five statewide offices for the first time in forty years (in a swing state, in an off-year), is heading for an equally anomalous conclusion.

There is much armchair psychologizing of the New Jersey and Virginia electorates in which we could indulge to try to explain why a socially and fiscally conservative Republican is cruising to victory in a state that reelected Barack Obama by 18 points, while a mediocre Democratic candidate has clung to a stubborn lead in a state that is still quite purple, albeit trending blue. That said, I’d like to leave the baseless speculation to Politico and its ilk, and turn instead to an interesting anecdote about newspaper endorsements in the two races.

On Sunday, October 20th, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Newark-based Star-Ledger, the most widely-circulated newspaper in New Jersey, both published editorials weighing in on their states’ respective gubernatorial showdowns. Or rather, one of them weighed in, and the other explained why it wouldn’t. From the Times-Dispatch:

The words that follow should not come as a surprise. During recent months, numerous editorials in The Times-Dispatch have lamented the gubernatorial campaign. The major-party candidates have earned the citizenry’s derision. The third-party alternative has run a more exemplary race yet does not qualify as a suitable option. We cannot in good conscience endorse a candidate for governor [emphasis added]. This does not gladden us. Circumstance has brought us to this pass. This marks, we believe, the first time in modern Virginia that The Times-Dispatch has not endorsed a gubernatorial nominee.

The paper criticizes Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of the state, for holding “objectionable” positions on “social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights,” and for pursuing his “divisive agenda with a stridency that was unbecoming in an attorney general and [that] would be unbecoming in a governor.” At the same time, it savages Democrat Terry McAuliffe for his lack of experience, claiming that “[h]is ignorance of state government is laughable and makes Rick Perry, the notorious governor of Texas, look like a Founding Father.” Nor do they find much to like about the long-shot third party candidate Robert Sarvis, who they declare “has no experience applicable to the governorship, period.”

Up in Jersey, the Star-Ledger editorial board found itself frustrated with the major-party candidates as well. It maintains that Chris Christie is “overrated” and that “[h]is spin is way ahead of his substance”:

[H]is achievements have been only modest. He signed an important reform to contain pension and health costs, but it was mostly done before he arrived. He signed a useful tenure reform last year, but it is a weak version that still protects bad teachers with seniority. His reorganization of the higher education system is promising, but untested. Balance that against his measurable failures, and you have to conclude he is much better at politics than he is at governing.

The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.

The governor’s claim to have fixed the state’s budget is fraudulent. New Jersey’s credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street’s judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper. He has no plan to finance transit projects and open space purchases now that he has nearly drained the dedicated funds he inherited from Gov. Jon Corzine.

His ego is entertaining, but it’s done damage as well. By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Barbara Buono, who ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination, is, in the judgment of the board, a “deeply flawed candidate”:

Buono’s close alliance with the teachers union is a threat to the progress Christie is making in cities such as Newark and Camden. She is hostile to charter schools, which now educate nearly 1 in 4 kids in Newark.

An authoritative national study showed that students in the charters are learning more… [y]et Buono cannot bring herself to acknowledge that the charters have helped. She sponsored a bill that would basically slam the brakes on new charters by requiring voter approval of each one. She is making a status quo argument in the face of persistent failure.

Buono opposes the Newark teacher contract, which freezes the pay of the worst teachers and grants bonuses to the best. She wants a traditional union deal, in which no distinction is made… Her alliance with the unions would also threaten progress made in containing the cost of public workers. She voted against the pension and health care reform, and supports the practice of allowing public workers to accumulate pay for unused sick days. She would cap the total at $7,500, but even that reveals a mindset that is discouraging.

Another big concern: Buono lacks the strategic savvy to be a successful governor. She commands little respect among fellow Democrats, who have abandoned her in droves, with nearly 50 elected officials endorsing Christie. She is a loner in the Senate who derides political bargains as “back-room deals.”

I mentioned earlier that one of the two newspapers weighed in on its state’s race, and the other explained why it wouldn’t. I’ve already identified the Times-Dispatch as the one that refused to endorse. Yet how could the Star-Ledger have chosen between a state executive who is “better at politics than he is at governing” and a challenger who “lacks the strategic savvy” to do the job? Somehow, it did:

[O]ur endorsement goes to Christie, despite the deep reservations. He has refused to speak with The Star-Ledger editorial board for four years, the first governor in either party to do so. But we are shaking off that insult because our duty is to the readers, and our goal is to help them decide which button to push. In her editorial board meeting, Buono simply did not make the case.

If this is an endorsement, it’s one of the most tepid endorsements that I’ve ever seen. Moreover, it’s astonishing that it comes despite the acknowledgment that the candidate being endorsed “refused to speak with the editorial board for four years.”

It isn’t as if the board had no other option. It could have chosen to endorse one of the half-dozen minor-party candidates for governor (although presumably not LaRouche supporter and Glass-Steagall enthusiast Diane Sare, who appeared as a heckler at the second gubernatorial debate, or perennial candidate and noted paranoiac Jeff Boss, who I spotted last week working the crowds in Port Authority). Such a move would be far from unprecedented: in 2009, the board endorsed independent Chris Daggett, who ultimately garnered less than 6% of the vote. To be sure, there is no alternative this time around polling as well as Daggett, who had hit 20% in some pre-election surveys. But fears about encouraging people to “waste” their vote by aiding and abetting a potential spoiler clearly didn’t factor into the Ledger’s decision last time; why should they have done so now?

All of this led me to wonder: do newspaper editorial boards have a duty as journalists to endorse candidates? Is opting to sit out a race an abdication of their responsibility to keep the electorate informed? I suppose even non-endorsements can keep people informed, by making them aware of the specific reasons why neither candidate deserves their vote. But in the long run, won’t this simply reinforce voter frustrations, and cause even fewer people to want to participate in the democratic process?

I don’t have a definite opinion about whether such a duty exists. Obviously newspapers shouldn’t intentionally behave in ways that make disillusionment with American politics even more widespread than it already is, but who is to say that anyone should urge others to vote for a particular candidate if they cannot themselves do so “in good conscience,” as the Times-Dispatch put it? I’ll refrain from making a judgment about whether the editors in Richmond handled their dilemma (or rather, trilemma) better than the editors in Newark, but I will say this: the Times-Dispatch marshaled far better arguments in support of its decision.

The Ledger, immediately after arguing that Buono is a hopelessly weak challenger, vitiates its own case by laying the blame for her lackluster candidacy on the powers that be in the NJ Democratic Party and by emphasizing all of the issues on which it believes she has the upper hand:

If this is the end for Buono, remember that she didn’t lose this on her own: The Democratic Party punted on this race. Its major players were scared to challenge Christie, and only Buono showed the conviction to stand up to him. If anyone should be ashamed in the wake of the crushing defeat the polls predict, it is the lethargic and compromised party establishment, not the lone woman who took up the challenge.

Buono has long been a sturdy voice for progressive causes. She was a key player in establishing paid family leave, protections against bullying and revamping the school aid formula. As governor, she would allow gay couples to marry, raise the minimum wage and stop the baseless attacks on the courts. She would raise taxes on incomes greater than $1 million, and restore at least some of the property tax rebates that Christie cut. She would also restore funding for Planned Parenthood, and sign strong gun legislation. On each of those issues, we are with her.

Doesn’t this contradict, or, at the very least, seriously problematize, the claim that Buono lacks “strategic savvy”? The motivation for endorsing Christie becomes even more of a puzzle when the board admits that it’s pulling for a man who holds positions that it hopes are never translated into policy:

The endorsement of Christie comes with the hope that Democrats hold control of the Legislature to contain his conservative instincts. It is especially important that Democrats hold the Senate to block him from remaking the Supreme Court in his image, a move that would doom urban schools and affordable housing efforts.

I actually agree with most of the Ledger’s substantive critiques of Buono, especially on education policy, and I would never claim that the decision to endorse Christie was an indefensible one. Yet the evidence the editors present does not support the case being made – and might even support the case that no case should have been made at all. I’ve quoted liberally from the article because I really do think it’s a remarkable piece. By the end, its main thesis comes to look like a complete non sequitur.

It’s hard to say whether newspaper endorsements really matter all that much anymore, given that we live in a time when journalism has been radically disrupted by smartphones and the Internet and when few media outlets are able to speak loud enough to be heard over the cacophony. But as the media become more self-consciously political and the echo chambers of right and left become further isolated from one another, the need for reporters and editorialists who will straightforwardly present the facts and guide the voters in making an educated choice – even if they don’t do so in the form of official endorsements – becomes perhaps more vital than ever before.

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