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Close but no cigar

Linda McMahon is running for Connecticut’s open Senate seat. Don’t laugh, she may win. She looks good to win the Other Party’s nomination, anyway.

But this isn’t going to be a note about how the Other Party seems to choose their nominees for elective office by searching for the candidate with the worst background by conventional criteria. In fact, it’s not really a note about Ms. McMahon at all. It’s about the local newspaper, and an article called The Lean Years: Filling In Outlines Of Linda McMahon’s Oft-Cited Bankruptcy, and two things that seem to be missing from the story.

First of all, the story itself is a good one, and a good use of the local paper. Ms. McMahon has talked about having those lean years, and the article reports on what happened, and when. Oh, another thing missing from the article is an extended quote from the stump speech, to establish the context in which Ms. McMahon puts the experience. Or at least a link from the on-line version of the article to a video. Well, anyway, it’s true that she does talk about the experience, and while it’s not absolutely true that anyone who would bother to read the Courant would already have heard such talk, it’s fairly likely. And if we accept that she does talk about it, it’s helpful to have the numbers, dates, major creditors and circumstances reported.

The second major missing thing in the story (after the stump speech quote) is the inflation numbers. The McMahons bought a house in 1974, taking out a mortgage of $120,000; the bank eventually foreclosed and that appears to have precipitated the bankruptcy filing, so that’s really the big number: $120,000 in 1974. My reaction was that it much have been a pretty big house; I don’t have a sense of inflation off the top of my head, but I think of the early/mid 1970s as a time when houses were only five figures. I plugged the number into the BLS inflation calculator and in 2012 dollars that’s $560,044.62. A half-million dollar house is a lot of house.

Why is this important? Well, if you are going to tell the story at all, it’s a story about what kind of life Ms. McMahon has led, and what kind of person she is. It turns out that the scale is important: she and her husband were ambitious people. They thought on a grand scale. They didn’t take a small risks for a small reward; they bought an enormous house (the article does say that it was eleven rooms) on an enormous mortgage. They lost on that one. A few years later, after discharging the bankruptcy, they bought a plot of land and built a house that they sold for $160,000 in 1978; again the newspaper doesn’t give you the 2012 dollars: $564,625.77. That one turned out well.

Does that story tell you anything about Ms. McMahon’s character? Her likely priorities in a seat in the United States Senate? Well, it might, a little. As much as the story she tells does, anyway.

But the third big missing thing is how this experience has shaped her policy preferences. There were major bipartisan bankruptcy bills in 2001 and 2005, which our Senators at the time split on (I think, with Chris Dodd opposed and Joe Lieberman supporting both of them). Does she think they were good bills? Does she think the law was better in 1976, when she was protected by it? Does Linda McMahon think that the now-reduced borrower protections should be maintained or increased, or does she think we need to protect lenders more?

There isn’t really anything in the article to remind readers that the subject of the article is running for the United States Senate, which is a legislative body that (among other things) sets the level of bankruptcy protection for people who take the kinds of risks that the McMahons took in 1974. The story of her past is relevant to her character, and that’s worth reporting on, but it’s also relevant to her current position on legislation, and that’s worth reporting on, too. As Mark Schmitt says, it’s not what the candidates say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the candidates, but what they say about the candidates should be related to how they will act as legislators.

Your Humble Blogger isn’t altogether down on newspapers, and part of that is this: of everybody, they are in the best position to let us know things like this while at the same time tying the story back in to the policy. They can keep in mind the point of the exercise, and have the training, the procedures, and the space to make a habit of it: here’s the story about the candidate, and here’s the related policy, and here’s what the candidate says about the policy, and the way they connect. The candidates will do that when they want to, of course, but that’s not enough. The TV news can’t do more than tell the story. The long-form radio news (on public radio) has its own issues, and haven’t (to my ears) managed the story-telling part well. The pundits are hopeless. The blogs (some of them) are good at the policy part but bad at the reporting part, and only a few of them can get interviews to get the connecting quotes.

I don’t like the Courant. I want to like the local paper, but they just aren’t a very good newspaper, and that’s frustrating. So I should put as much emphasis, I suppose, on the fact that this is almost a really worthwhile contribution to the campaign on the fact that it fails very badly at the point of the exercise. But things like that are a habit—like accuracy and disinterest and clarity, including the connection to policy is something they can have processes in place to support or, well, or not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,