June 27, 2006


I found Joe Klein's Time article "Pssst! Who's behind the decline of politics? [Consultants.]" interesting partially because I am fascinated by the mechanics of politics. It may be an ad for his book, "Politics Lost : How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid" but it also includes a ring of hope for the future of politics.

In his article, Klein covers the subject of political authenticity. In the 2000 presidential race Al Gore didn't seem to have it and lost. Klein recalls a discussion with Tad Devine, one of Gore's consultants.
Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, but he lost an election he should have won, and he lost it on intangibles. He lost it because he seemed stiff, phony and uncomfortable in public. The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: just about every last word he uttered—even the things he said in the debates with George W. Bush—had been market-tested in advance. I asked Devine if he'd ever considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he'd talked about the things he really wanted to talk about, like the environment. "That's an interesting thought," Devine said.
Klein goes on to talk about how in the 2004 presidential election, Bush came off as more authentic than Kerry.
In Austin, Texas, the political consultant Mark McKinnon watched the Gore and Kerry campaigns from a unique perspective. He had spent his life as a Democrat and now he was working, as a matter of personal loyalty, for his friend George W. Bush.
There was little of the hand wringing about whether the shading of a position would offend the party's interest groups. Issues, in fact, seemed less important than they did in any given Democratic campaign. And McKinnon had come to a slightly guilty realization: maybe that was a good thing. Rove's assumption was that voters had three basic questions about a candidate: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?

Politics was all about getting the public to answer yes to those three questions. Of course, an integral part of the job was aggressively—often stealthily and sometimes disgracefully—painting the opposition as weak, untrustworthy and effete.
Presidential politics had been reduced to a handful of moments and gestures. In fact, the 2004 campaign came down to two sentences. Kerry: "I actually voted for the $87 billion [to fund Iraq] before I voted against it."

Bush: "You may not always agree with me, but you'll always know where I stand."

Presidential campaigns are, inevitably, about character. In 2004, at a moment of real national consequence for the United States, character was expressed in the most limited, nonpositive way imaginable: I know you don't agree with me—in fact, most polls showed the public thought that Bush had taken the country in the wrong direction—but at least I'm telling some version of the truth as I sort of see it. Oh, and by the way, you can't trust a thing the other guy is saying. This was the clinching argument at a time of war in the world's oldest and grandest democracy.
The three questions, "Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?" can translate as "Can he get things done? Will he do what he says he will do? And will he do things that will help people like me?" People instinctively know that the challenges a politician will face over his term are often unknowable, it is therefore rational for them to ask these "character" questions rather than specific policy questions.

The answer to the three questions can tell us if the public supports a politician. Kick out any leg and the three legged stool falls over. For example, Bush's low popularity ratings may be because of a deterioration in many people's view of Bush as a strong leader (someone who can get things done). He can't seem to solve the problems in Iraq, even though the public trusts that Bush wants to fix Iraq and believes Bush thinks fixing Iraq will be good for the US public. If they believe Bush can't fix Iraq, they won't support him.

Klein describes how he thinks (hopes?) the rise in the value of political authenticity will effect politics:
I hate predictions. Most pundits, like most pollsters, get their information by looking in the rearview mirror. But let me give 2008 a try. The winner will be the candidate who comes closest to this model: a politician who refuses to be a "performer," at least in the current sense. Who speaks but doesn't orate. Who never holds a press conference on or in front of an aircraft carrier. Who doesn't assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one major idea, or program, that has less than 40% support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason ... but only if those emotions are real and rare. Who isn't averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake. And who, above all, abides by the motto that graced Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Oval Office: let unconquerable gladness dwell.
I am not quite so sanguine. I think that many politicians are not authentic because if they said what they really believe their opponents would smear them with it. I think that Joe Klein secretly wants the return of politicians like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan (who were either authentic or could fake it amazingly well). I am afraid that few politicians can be that authentic (or fake it that well.) Posted by georgegmacdonald at June 27, 2006 02:37 PM