Archive: Eric Engberg

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Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante is the host of's Smoke-Filled-Room. Each week, Bill invites a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled-Room to answer your questions. This week's guest is CBS News Correspondent, and Reality Check maven, Eric Engberg.

Plante: Our first viewer, Emily A. asks, "Do you think that all these polls deter people from voting? Why should I bother turning out if polls already tell us who is going to win?"

Engberg: Isn't this a moot question this year, when the polls are showing the race to be a toss-up nationwide? There is no conclusive evidence that polls retard turn-out even in years when they forecast a landslide. People generally regard their vote as important even if it doesn't look good for their candidate.

Furthermore, in most places there are so many matters on the ballot - school board elections, referenda, state races - that the voter has considerable government business to decide on even if he doubts that his vote for President matters much.

Plante: "Do you think the Electoral College has outlived its usefulness? Shouldn't the popular vote determine the winner?" Isabelle J. is curious.

Engberg: The Electoral College system is a ticking bomb for our democracy. It has produced minority presidents in the past, and it is certain to do so again some day. Most voters have only a vague understanding of how the Electoral College works, and how perverse it can be. This year, given the closeness of the race, could be the year they find out. After that, look out.

I suspect that the next time someone who finished second in the popular vote wins the electoral vote there will be a huge outcry and public demand for a Constitutional change that modifies or eliminates the Electoral College.

Meanwhile, that President will spend a miserable four years in office, because every time he takes a controversial stance, his opponents will challenge his legitimacy.

Plante: "Do you think newspaper endorsements influence how readers will vote? Also, why don't the networks and local TV stations give endorsements?" asks Walt Korb.

Engberg: Considering the generally low state of public regard for the news media, I doubt that newspaper endorsements mean much. They are probably more influential in smaller markets, where the paper has a record of taking positions on a variety of issues that matter to the readership. That way, the readers have a pretty good gauge of the newspaper's judgment and will be guided by that.

Television broadcasters, because they use the public airwaves, are subject to various laws and FCC regulations any time they editorialize on a controversial subject. So, endorsing political candidates would create numerous legal problems for broadcasters, including the likelihood that they would have to offer equatime to everyone they did NOT endorse.

Beyond that, there is no tradition of editorializing on any issue by the broadcasting industry and no desire by managers to stir up the hornet's nest that would result from tackling political endorsements.

Remember, these companies are licensed by the federal government, whereas newspapers are not.

Plante: "Bill Clinton is now saying that the Republicans should apologize for impeaching him," notes AHW. He asks, "Why would he bring the subject up now - won't talking about this hurt Al Gore?"

Engberg: Why would he bring this up now? Are you kidding? If we have learned one thing about Bill Clinton in 7 1/2 years it is that he has a Clinton-centric view of the political landscape. When the subject is himself, he sees no reason why we shouldn't be discussing it all the time, and feeling his pain. He hasn't confided in me, but my best guess is that he cares little whether this subject - or most others - will hurt Gore, especially since Gore has been treating him like communicable disease.

I probably hold a minority view on this subject, but, as I've stated in Reality Check columns on this site, I think the candidates should be talking about the impeachment and whether it was good for the country. It did, after all, consume almost a year of the nation's time and pretty much bring the government to a stop. History is going to be talking about it plenty. We shouldn't try to act like it didn't happen.

Plante: "Who decided that health care for the elderly was going to be THE topic of discussion in this year’s campaign?" asks our final viewer MWC. She goes on to write, "I'm 69 years old and I'm worried about lots of things besides the cost of prescriptions for the elderly. It seems like health care is all you hear about."

Engberg: This is a very good question, one that shows that you aren't the selfish gray panther many politicians think your generation consists of. In a word, it was cynicism that made health care for the elderly this year's "Glamor Issue". Politicians are guided by polls and focus groups. Those less-than-perfect measuring tools show that elderly health issues are important not just to the elderly but to their children, who worry about supporting them.

I think the methodology of polls and focus groups tends to stereotype the elderly voter as being fixated on this narrow range of problems, instead of taking into account voters like yourself who have a broad range of concerns. But the bottom line is that the politicians really want to pander to this age group - because, unlike their children, they vote.

Professional politicians are not very creative. They go back, whenever possible, to some issue that's worked in the past. With the economy in good shape and the world generally at peace they didn't have much to talk about this year except character issues (Clinton) and how to use thsurplus.

So both parties go back to the old reliable in an effort to mobilize seniors. It's not you or your generation's fault, it's the empty headed mindset of the political class.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS News teamthat captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)