Washington Post on GOP speeches: Sharp on spotting holes, weak on filling them

Gotta hand it to the Washington Post. They got it right, right in the headline: "Lots of prayer but not many specifics at GOP summit in Iowa."

A dozen Republican presidential hopefuls came under the Post's microscope in its coverage of the GOP's Iowa blitz. They talked vaguely about social values and how their faiths sustain them. But seldom did they connect the two as public policy.

And the Post, unfortunately, didn't press them. Which is too bad, because the lede was pretty promising:

WAUKEE, IOWA — Religious liberty came up again and again as potential Republican presidential candidates gave stump speeches in a packed suburban mega-church on Saturday night. Many in the crowded field have struggled to find just the right way to discuss controversial social issues -- like immigration, abortion and income inequality -- without hurting their chances of becoming the next president.
Looming over the broad proclamations of the need to protect religious views is the national debate about the balance between reducing discrimination and upholding religious freedom, sparked by a controversial Indiana law signed this spring. But, as with other issues, most politicians did not get into specifics on how to strike that balance.
Doing justice to everyone in the crowded field, as the article aptly calls it, is a tough job for less than 900 words. But the Post manages by nimbly picking representative quotes from the candidates.

Mike Huckabee says the nation is "criminalizing Christianity." Ted Cruz decries "religious liberty under assault at an unprecedented level." Both Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal say they'd attend a same-sex wedding of a loved one, even though they oppose the practice themselves. Scott Walker reads a favorite devotion, and Rick Perry tells what his Christian faith means to him.

Whether it's true or not that the Indiana law spawned the religious campaign talk, that law is one of three current events the Post works into the story. The others are President Obama's negotiations with Iran and the Supreme Court's plans to start deliberating tomorrow (Tuesday) whether same-sex marriage is a matter of constitutional right or state law.

What the candidates don’t say is how their beliefs will help them deal with issues like immigration, foreign policy and the national debt. That’s another dilemma, of course. On the one hand, a religion that doesn't affect the concrete world has no concrete power. On the other hand, the candidates don’t want to sound like they think their interpretations are the only ones.

Other good stuff: The Washington Post doesn't go crazy with branding everyone as the  "conservative" this and that. It's sparing also with the prefix "anti-." Rather than calling Jindal anti-gay, for instance, it merely says he "held firm to the traditional definition" of marriage.

This, however, raised my eyebrow: "But social issues that play well in the Midwest, especially with evangelical activists, can become a liability as candidates progress to other primary states or for whomever moves on to compete in the general election." Well, yeah, that's kind of obvious. Issues important to Iowans may not be important in New Hampshire. And New Hampshire's hot buttons may not be hot in Nevada or Florida or Alabama or South Dakota.

And for all the noodling about prayer, religion and evangelicalism, the newspaper is shy about getting feedback from actual religious Iowans.  The article quotes only one voter, at the very end -- and feels the need to say he's 82 and has been married for more than 60 years. And if he noticed the faith-based content in the speeches, he isn't quoted for saying so.  He just says he wants more specifics.

If there was, in fact, a lot of God talk at the Iowa primary, it would have been a good time to ask each candidate how he sees the relationship between religion/spirituality and the business of being president.  From a couple of hints in the Washington Post story, it sounds like the reporters had private moments with the candidates. They should have taken the opportunity to ask details. After all, it's the theme on which they built their article.

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