Politics Lost
Joe Klein

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Politics Lost

How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid

Copyright © 2006 by Joe Klein



The Twenty-Point Kiss
Bush figured Gore would “misunderestimate” him and come across, at some crucial moment, as aloof and patronizing. The strategy also placed Bush squarely in a Republican tradition [...]: people didn’t want to be burdened with facts and ideas, they wanted to be entertained, and to be led. Bush’s application of this principle was by turns charming and demagogic, but it was nonstop effective.

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).

The character of the candidate, they believed, would be inferred from the quality of his policies. How quaint. In the television era, fleeting impressions counted far more than cogent policies. Fleeting impressions were all most people had time for. Presidential politics was all about character . . . or rather, the appearance of character.




Rumors about McCain’s mental stability swirled through the state—it was said that he had been brainwashed during the six years he had been imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese; it was said that his wife, Cindy, was a drug addict (she had been addicted to painkillers for a time); it was said that he was the father of a mixed-race child (the McCains had an adopted daughter who came from Bangladesh). There were no fingerprints on any of the dirt, but it was funny how these sorts of rumors always seemed to float about in campaigns run by Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove. (In the 1994 Texas gubernatorial campaign, for example, there were rumors that the incumbent governor Ann Richards was a lesbian.)

“John, it’s just politics,” Bush said to McCain when they met backstage before their South Carolina debate.

“George,” McCain replied quietly, jaw taut, “everything isn’t politics.”

In fact, Bush was particularly—and heinously—adept at sequestering his behavior in political campaigns from the rest of his life. [...] Politics was spectacle, not substance. It was a blood sport, and there was only one rule: whatever it takes to win.



A sneering man asked Bush what he would do about “all these bastards” being born to women on welfare. [...] Bush glared at the man—he seemed truly angry—and said, “First, sir, we must remember that it is our duty to love all the children.”

There was no political advantage to the statement. [...] He responded as a human being. For a moment, everything wasn’t politics.

Sadly, I never saw Al Gore (or John Kerry, in 2004) have a similar moment—in which he directly challenged the smug assumptions of his supporters—during the course of the campaign. This was a spiritual failure, and it probably cost Gore the presidency. Bush had the ability, on stray occasions when he wasn’t reciting his daily message, to pass for a regulation human being.

Compare to:

Molly Ivins


Issues Are the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

I think it was Wills who asked Brown about the incongruity of a reform candidate getting so much machine support. “In my father’s house,” the son of Governor Pat Brown said, “there are many machines.”

No way that guy was ever going to be elected president, either.

An impolitic politician is an oxymoron. Discipline and dignity are every bit as important to the political equation as humanity and, sadly, candor. It is also very curious that in a number of these instances [...] the candor is unleavened by warmth: American mavericks, especially of the fanatic-reformer variety, tend to be angry loners, cold fish, egomaniacs.
A successful political campaign has a dramatic structure that often begins with a bang—the candidate makes known his or her distinctive quality—then subsides for a time as the press and opponents pick away at the candidate’s weak spots, then builds gradually toward an election-day climax. One of the hoariest political clichés is actually true; it is possible to peak too soon. Mavericks inevitably do. They thrive in the midst of the maelstrom, but lack the perspective needed to make the daily tweaks and weekly adjustments that are necessary in a long campaign.

There is no more compelling spectacle in politics than watching a man on a white horse attempting to traverse a muddy field.

[...] Why do most politicians—George W. Bush, for example—seem to believe that any admission of failure or error will cast them immediately into the outer darkness? This is a mystifying reflex, a bit of tradecraft that has almost become a political tradition. It is probably the single greatest contributor to the general impression that politicians are congenital liars.




We’re Going to Meet the People Where They Are

A “no” vote would reinforce both the Democrats’ perceived weakness on national security matters and the president’s post-9/11 reputation for strength in fighting the campaign against Islamist terrorism. “The resolution was clearly going to pass. The Bushies clearly wanted John to vote no,” said Jonathan Winer, one of Kerry’s foreign policy advisers, who argued for the “pragmatic” position. “Why should he give them what they wanted?”

Because you don’t play politics with wars.




I told Kerry about Elaine Kamarck’s great line, “The reason why Howard Dean got Iraq right was that he was the only one of the major candidates who didn’t get a classified intelligence briefing from the CIA.”

Kerry laughed and then he frowned. “There’s more than a little truth to that,” he said.

Kerry had now cast three contradictory votes on Iraq—against the first Gulf War, for the second Gulf War, and against the money to fight the war for which he had voted. [...] He had destroyed the original rationale, the moral and intellectual basis for his candidacy.

It is a withering commentary on the feeble condition of the Democratic Party that John Kerry went on to win the nomination almost by acclamation.

Note (Hal’s):
A local comment on “almost by acclamation” (and “feeble condition”): Kerry had over 99% of the convention vote, which would have dropped to about 98.85% except that the Minnesota delegation bullied, lied, and eventually broke promises to convert eight Kucinich votes. We all knew Kucinich probably wouldn’t win a general election, whereas Kerry probably did (save for Ohio’s treatment of voters), but fighting over nine votes—one from St. Paul didn’t give in—was stupid: Exhibit A in my case that Minnesota party leadership exhibited a remarkably keen and retentive grasp of nonessentials.

They were good for slapstick, however: Mike Erlandson ducked his promised strong peace statement by handing off to the Venerable Walter Mondale, who announced “one vote for Dennis Kucinich; 86 votes for John Edwards.” Those screwups weren’t so funny that fall, when one of their chosen electors cast an electoral vote for Edwards with the Ohio situation unresolved.

— end note

Presidential elections are not about “meeting the voters where they are.” They are about leadership. Passivity had worked in the primaries—and Shrum probably thought not only that his cleverness put to rest his reputation as a lousy strategist but also that he had figured out the mood of the people in 2004. He would insist on a positive campaign. [...]

And so the stage was set for a general-election campaign historic in length [...] with a public that seemed extremely interested in politics for a change, an incumbent president whose ineptitude in waging a foreign war was unprecedented in American history . . . and a Democratic challenger who refused to criticize the president or offer a coherent alternative (beyond the stalest of liberal nostrums). It is no small testimony to George W. Bush’s substantive failures that John Kerry almost won. It is no small testimony to Bush’s political skill that Kerry didn’t.

“We knew that he had a tendency to chase the rabbit,” Mehlman told me. “If we hit him on something, he’d probably respond.” And respond, and respond. The Bush’s campaign’s highest priority was to get Kerry explaining, and entangling himself, and diminishing his credibility on Iraq, which would be the most important issue in the campaign.


And So, My Fellow Americans, in Conclusion . . .

The presidency of George W. Bush represented the final, squalid perfection of the Permanent Campaign that Pat Caddell first suggested to Jimmy Carter in 1976. It was an odd mix of ideology and cynicism, a visionary nihilism, if such a thing is possible. It assumed—correctly—that the public wouldn’t be paying all that much attention to the details. It assumed that grand proclamations of principle, the casual tossing about of marching words like “freedom” and “moral” and “evil,” would suffice, that the public would never look beyond the high-minded pronouncements to see the cronyism, inattention to basic governance, crude politics, and self-delusional manipulation of reality that lay beneath.

The White House was overpopulated with executives and bereft of managers. It was the precise opposite of the small-bore, detail-oriented Clinton administration: Bush was about big ideas, badly executed. Indeed, the pedestrian disciplines of governance had become alien to the essence of the Republican Party. Government was the enemy, wasn’t it? The very notion of planning, especially long-term planning, for the common good seemed vaguely . . . socialist, didn’t it?

But worse, far worse, was the tendency of the White House—particularly Karl Rove and the political “message” apparatus—to see the war first as a political opportunity and then, as the news turned bad, as merely another issue to be massaged. At the highest levels of the White House, more effort went into spinning the war than fighting it.

The Democratic Party shuffles between witless partisanship and nervous silence—with its silence coming on the most important issues, like the war in Iraq. [...] The baby boom generation has proved a fairly significant trough in the history of American political leadership; our greatest—our only—contribution to the Republic has been the rise of political consultancy.

American politics is gangrenous with cynicism. It suffers an ideological rigor mortis imposed by the power of special interests and the caution of consultants. The two essential democratic traits—humanity and compromise— are in eclipse.

I came to politics as a liberal and became a moderate, a common enough journey. But to be moderate is to be homeless in twenty-first-century American politics. Indeed, it isn’t easy to be a classic liberal or conservative these days, either. [...] Both parties swan toward their extremes, since the extremists are the most adept at raising money and crowds, using direct mail, negative advertising, and the other dark arts of political consultancy. And individual politicians, ever mindful of the dangers on all sides, terrified that the next thing they say will become the fodder for a thermonuclear negative ad, grow ever more cautious. We are drifting, I fear, toward a flaccid, hollowed-out democracy where honest debate is impossible—a democracy without citizenship.

But there is also the possibility that, out of dissatisfaction with the current dreadfulness . . . or sheer boredom—the eternal itchiness of the American electorate—we will begin to drift in a more creative direction. It’s certainly well past time for a change.

Numbers seem a lot more authoritative than they actually are—they are skewed by the way the questions are asked, the options offered, the questions not asked. And the sum of political knowledge possessed by pollsters is almost entirely dependent upon what has gone before . . . not what might be. [...] You really need the human touch—the personal qualities of the candidate himself—to evaluate what the traffic will bear. A great politician, acting creatively, can overturn existing public opinion. A good politician, acting out of principle, can win respect for his or her position, even if the public disagrees with it.

Polling has replaced thinking and feeling, and not just for politicians. Political journalism, especially on television, has become little more than the slavish devotion to polls. The processes of politics—the cross-tabs, the buys, the ground war, the weird fetish of numeric expectations [...]—is the stuff of news now, as opposed to the qualities of the candidates. Or rather, the positive qualities of the candidates. We report their gaffes and tactics endlessly [...]

Instead of voters, we now have handicappers. [...] This is a form of pragmatism, I suppose, but it is another factor that creates distance, that makes the political process less compelling. The fact that pundits—people like me—are so often crashingly wrong makes it all the more pathetic. Pundits, like pollsters, get most of their information by looking in the rearview mirror. We cannot predict what will work, or what won’t, no matter how certain we sound. Figuring out the future is the job of leaders, and we are merely observers: we are never more foolish than when we make predictions. Real leadership throughout history has involved the defiance of conventional wisdom, the breaking of rules.

Normally, this would be the point where the author makes some specific recommendations about how to heal American politics and create a vibrant public square in the information age. [...] Sorry. Not this time, not this book. I find most of the worthy suggestions packed into the last chapters of political books to be insufferably boring. I believe that the politicians themselves have to figure out new ways to engage and inspire us . . . or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.

But there are a couple of things I’d like to mention—one tiny, and the other impossibly broad and abstract.

The tiny thing is this: given the immense power and authority of the hired guns—the pollsters, strategists, and ad makers—no politician should ever go to battle without a “better angel” at his or her side.

[...] true leadership means taking the country to a new place, and describing the journey in words that are fresh, specific, and real. It means telling us things we don’t know and things we don’t want to hear—the very opposite qualities from the market-tested political speech that arises out of polling and focus groups.

The ceremonies of consultancy have become threadbare and transparent; they may still work, but only in the absence of a real alternative.

And what might that alternative be?

A politician who refuses to be a “performer,” at least in the current sense. Who doesn’t orate. Who never holds a press conference in front of an aircraft carrier or in a flag factory. Who doesn’t assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one idea, or program, that has less than 40 percent support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. [...] Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake. Who abides by the sign that graced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Oval Office: “Let Unconquerable Gladness Dwell.”



text checked (see note) Nov 2006

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