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The Empathy Gap?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Empathy Gap?"

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I wonder oftentimes how important newspaper columnists see their role. For example, Ruth Marcus writes this:

As issues become increasingly complex — voters can’t be expected to parse the technical differences between the candidates’ cap-and-trade emissions plans or the distributional effects of their tax cuts — biography, especially biography laced with conflict and resolution, becomes a proxy for providing assurance that the candidate can be counted on to get it right on the more difficult matters.

I could see Marcus’ column shifting in two plausible directions here. One would be to decide that she ought to try to use her skills as a writer, reporter, and analyst to explain the differences between the candidates’ climate plans or their tax policies. The different distributive impact of the candidates’ tax plans isn’t actually all that hard to explain. Obama’s plan would deliver lower taxes for 80 percent of Americans, but McCain’s plan would be better for the richest fifth of the population (wonder which group Marcus is in) while bringing in lower overall federal revenues. Another direction would be to use her skills as a writer, reporter, and analyst to say something substantive about the candidates’ biographies and whether or not those biographies give her confidence that the candidate can be counted on to get it right on the more difficult matters.

But she doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, she goes meta, dedicating her column to the proposition that “Obama needs to seem more familiar and approachable to voters, yes, but he also needs to convey — to use President Clinton’s famous phrasing — that he feels their pain.” This, even though her column cites numbers that indicate Obama is crushing McCain 49-36 “on the classic poll question about which candidate better understands the problems of people like you.” The Post‘s website, meanwhile, gives the column the title “Obama’s Empathy Issue.” But what’s the issue? That he’s viewed as empathetic by way more people than his opponent?

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