Politics Lost
Joe Klein

These pages: Politics Lost

first part (here)

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Politics Lost

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

Copyright © 2006 by Joe Klein

If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.





I have covered all or part of eight presidential campaigns since then. I tried to quit the business after the endless, depressing 2000 race, but—somewhat to my dismay, and very much to my family’s—I was back on the trail four years later. When people ask why I keep coming back for more, I try to make a joke of it: “They don’t have twelve-step programs for political junkies.”

But that’s not it, not entirely. There’s also the memory of Robert Kennedy. Not that I expect to see another campaign as gracious, eloquent, and true as his brief flight.

Listen to Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech and there is a deep respect for the audience, which is not present in modern American politics. It isn’t merely that he quotes Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, although that is remarkable enough. [...] The audience hasn’t been sliced and diced by his pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, the turns of phrase most efficient to their ears focus-grouped. He hasn’t been told what not to say to them.

Words like “responsibility” and “respect” and “values” are beloved by focus groups everywhere. They may have been effective once, but they are easily spotted now—they are, in fact, rhetorical snooze buttons: clear signals that the politician speaking has absolutely nothing of interest to say.



I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found rogues more fun, and often more useful, than reformers. The efforts of reformers—especially their muddled attempts to cleanse and regulate the campaign-finance system—have resulted, as often as not, in unintended consequences that have made public life more perverse and corrupt. A vibrant democracy is a messy spectacle, dependent on grease, horse manure, and prestidigitation. Furthermore, and to lay all my cards on the table, I am a pro-peccadillo journalist. I want a president who has intimate, personal knowledge of human frailty, [...] who has the wisdom that comes from falling, falling down, and getting up again.



At the same time, the secret ceremonies of politics were no longer viable: 1968 was the last year that the Democratic Party chose a candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t captured the nomination by winning the most delegates in the primaries. Television demanded transparency and the rules of presidential politics were changed. The voters took control, selecting the candidates in a maddening chaos of state-by-state campaigns. [...] Presidential politics was now a matter of self-promotion rather than smoke-filled selection by political experts. Over time, journalists found convenient, and often foolish, ways to quantify the anarchy: money raised, standing in the polls, endorsements. These, rather than a sober assessment of character and leadership ability, became the yardsticks for presidential plausibility.

Gradually, the languorous, and often bipartisan, deliberation that marked the discussion of serious issues in Washington slipped into history as well. Partisanship—the more fervent, the better—became the easiest way to gain the attention of the media and the support of the special interests, and thereby the money necessary to get re-elected.

An angry populist third-party candidate, George C. Wallace of Alabama, would win the Confederacy in 1968, but Nixon began the tectonic shift of the South from fervently Democratic to fervently Republican (apparently, Southerners don’t do tepid)—a landmark political transformation caused, at bottom, by the Democratic Party’s honorable decision to support the civil rights legislation that desegregated the region. The Democrats have been swimming upstream ever since, which has probably made them more dependent on the consulting industry than the Republicans. Their attempts to communicate with voters—with the exception of an occasional public genius like Bill Clinton—have been less comfortable, more opaque, more tortured.
“He never sang, but goddamnit his off-keyness touched people,” Shrum said. “For example, in the midst of his acceptance speech at the 1948 convention, as he’s challenging the ‘do nothing’ Republican Congress, he says that he’s going to call them back to Washington on ‘the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day.’ ” Shrum paused, and shook his head in admiration. “Turnip Day!”

Note (Hal’s):
Bob Shrum, quoted here, is a recurring figure in the book.

Throughout the book, Klein uses ‘Turnip Day moment’ to describe those all-too-rare incidents in which a candidate says something no consultant would conceivably script, and thereby reveals himself. See the next quote.

— end note

A truckload of academic studies have proven that voters have only a vague sense of the issues; they don’t sweat the big stuff. But they do have fierce antennae for phoniness. They sense courage, they honor principle, they love humor and common sense.

If you’re going to ask them to make a sacrifice—to pay higher taxes, to go to war—you’d best have your act together. If you’re going to lead, you’d best be willing to show them something of yourself, something that hasn’t been pureed by pollsters. If you want them to take a risk, you’re going to have to take one yourself. [...]

Turnip Day is an appropriately inelegant shorthand for everything I love about politics. It represents a good deal of what we have lost—and a quality of humanity that I hope we can recover.


The Burden of Southern History

“They didn’t see themselves as hawks or doves. They weren’t part of the elite conversation that was taking place in the media. It was their kids who were over in Vietnam bleeding to death. And so it was, ‘Stop this horseshit! Either go all out and win the damn thing, or get out and bring the boys home.’ It was mind-blowing, and it made perfect sense. The people who were polling the war had it all wrong. ‘Are you in favor or are you opposed’ just wasn’t the right question.”

And so, even before he had graduated from high school, Pat Caddell had begun his quest: to find a way to speak to those alienated Southern populists, to lure them back to the Democratic Party despite their essential cultural conservatism. This would also become a central question in the life of the Democratic Party [...]


Vietnam War

But most important, Caddell successfully defined the presidency in the television age. “Essentially,” he wrote, “it is my thesis that governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”

Thus, the Permanent Campaign was born. [...] All future presidents would run their administrations from a consultant’s-eye view. Short-term tactical success would be emphasized over long-term strategic planning.

Obviously, Caddell believed that specific policy prescriptions should be left to the experts, but he also warned Carter against getting too wonky: “The old cliché about mistaking style for substance usually works in reverse in politics. Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening.” [Italics mine.]



Politics is a contact sport, but sometimes the contact involves a good massage.
Christopher Lasch’s theory that affluence had robbed the nation of its sense of community and purpose contained a certain truth [...] but it was also a form of liberal wishful thinking. It implied that government activism could renew the American spirit. But what if most Americans didn’t want their spirits renewed?

He Looks Me in the Tie
But no matter how egregious the inconsistency, Reagan never lost the support of the faithful because they were absolutely convinced that they knew who he was and what he believed. They were convinced that he acted pragmatically only when his arm was twisted, only when he had no other choice (or when his consultants led him astray). Which, when you think about it, was refreshingly strange, given the prevailing cynicism about politicians. But then, leaders of ideological movements rarely get themselves elected president—Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson were, arguably, the only other two. Reagan did, and like Lincoln and Jackson, he pretty much had to create a new political party to get there.
Collective leadership requires deliberation—and deliberation is impossible in the warp-speed world of presidential politics. (It is simply amazing how often Democrats would make this mistake in the future; Republicans carefully studied Reagan’s early blunders, and almost always created campaigns with clear lines of authority.)

Character is one of the most overused and under-analyzed words in American politics. Let’s attempt a simple definition: character is the intersection of beliefs and humanity. Beliefs are not policies; they are more fundamental than that—a coherent and accessible world-view. And a convincing demonstration of humanity involves more than photo ops at the state fair; it always involves some form of spontaneity.




Reagan never asked anything of the American people. The habits of citizenship—the service, sacrifice, and discipline that had distinguished his own “Greatest” generation—were allowed to fade amidst the narcotic haze of the Great Affluence. [...] Conservatives believed that it was important for government to recede from its central position in American life, and allow free enterprise to flourish; conservatives believed that the huge budget deficits caused by the Reagan tax cuts would prevent the further expansion of the government.

But those arguments were short-sighted and insidious, and the Reagan style of leadership would contribute mightily to the trivialization of American politics. After Reagan, it became practically impossible for a candidate to propose any sort of long-term program involving short-term sacrifice (unless it involved a very narrow definition of national security). Any talk of energy independence, global warming, or even free-market reforms of the health-care system or old-age entitlements came to seem airy and unrealistic. Government was no longer a common public enterprise; it was the enemy of freedom. The nation’s capital was an utterly corrupt foreign land.



Ronald Reagan


Banana-Peel Words
The multifarious “progressive” tribes had lost track of the American public just as “progressive” jazz musicians had wandered off into melodic abstraction in the 1950s; in both cases, the adjective “progressive” was the antonym of “popular.”
Their speech became gerundial, evasive—it reflected the sensibility of the teachers and social workers, the “helping professions” that became the party’s most loyal voters. They seemed more concerned with understanding bad actions than with punishing them. I once asked David Dinkins, the mayor of New York, if he thought evil had any role in criminality, and he responded, testily and no doubt unconsciously, with examples of how the evil subjugation of the poor had produced the conditions that induced people to commit crimes. Yes, poverty and discrimination induced criminality to a certain extent. But Dinkins was simply incapable of saying, as were most liberals of his era, that there were some bad people out there—in the city and in the world—who needed to be taken out of public circulation. [...] To paraphrase the old line about puritans, a liberal became a person who worried that someone, somewhere might be offended.

Note (Hal’s):
Klein makes a good point, but misses another one: that it doesn’t matter how many people we lock up (or kill) if we continue to structure society so that it naturally molds more like them, and that modern “conservatives” consider only the locking up (or killing) to be worth society’s while.

— end note




I Came to Love Our Weekly Polls

Populism is one of the more romantic and less admirable American political traditions. It purports to represent the interests of the little guy. More often than not, it has manifested itself as a witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid. The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: the country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats or smoggy-brained intellectuals.

This rather sour ideology had one fleeting moment of high-mindedness in the 1890s. The Populist Party promoted several programs—the progressive income tax, a central banking system with control over the money supply, antitrust regulation—to provide needed controls over an emerging, national economy. [...] And the tendency toward reform—these days, toward reform of government and special-interest power—remains the very best of populism, although very much a minor chord.

Indeed, among those who dispensed the money at the congressional campaign committees there was an inherent bias against candidates who seemed unconventional. There was even a bias against the more out-there consultants, like Trippi and Minnesota’s Bill Hillsman (who did hilarious, unconventional ads for Jesse Ventura and Senator Russ Feingold). Hillsman claimed that the only honorable sort of focus group was to invite a bunch of people together, provide lots of beer and snacks—but never ask them any questions. Just have a TV in the corner, running some political ads. If people stopped their conversations to watch an ad, that was a good one.

Note (Hal’s):
Bill Hillsman’s ads would have qualified. “Fast-paced Paul” featured Paul Wellstone zipping from scene to scene, giving rapid-fire description in each. The reason offered was that he could only afford one ad and had to jam it with information—but the punch line was “after he’s elected, he won’t slow down.”

Ventura ads included “Jesse the Thinker” (nude, posed as the Rodin sculpture) and the “Jesse Ventura action figure.” I gather his most recent variant involves actually selling the action figures to help finance a campaign (Kinky Friedman’s, in Texas).

— end note

His campaign consultants—who were social and economic populists—hated Clinton’s fiscal conservatism (the numbers said the people didn’t care about budget deficits) and loved the First Lady’s plan to require businesses to provide health insurance for their employees. They encouraged Clinton to push hard on health care, to melodramatically pull his pen from his pocket during a State of the Union address and threaten to veto any bill that didn’t provide for universal coverage.

This was a classic, stupid consultant trick—and Clinton, privately, kicked himself for not going with his gut sense, which was to stow the pen and figure out some way to woo the Republican leader Bob Dole, compromise, declare victory, and come back later for a gradual expansion of the program.

“People think Clinton does what the consultants tell him to do,” Popkin recalled Greenberg saying. “But it’s the exact opposite. He picks his consultants according to where he wants to go.”

Now he wanted to go—posthaste—back to the political center. The most obvious person to take him there was an idiot savant named Dick Morris [...]

Morris was another luftmensch, a courtier whose smarminess was legendary and ambidextrous—he worked for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Morris was the ultimate iteration of the consultant as snake-oil salesman. One imagines him spreading his daily selection of policy trinkets and elixirs out on an Indian blanket in the Oval Office. But his medicine worked, in large part because most of his birdlike whispers were based upon the most extensive polling data collected in the history of the presidency [...]

There are two prominent theories about how you win an election: spend most of your energy rousing your devoted followers—your “base”—or spend most of your energy trying to win over the 20 percent or so in the middle of the political spectrum, the “swing” vote. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Any successful campaign has to do both.

Penn later acknowledged that the Greenberg-Shrum economic populism aroused more intense reactions than his swing-vote social populism but, he sniffed, “I don’t know how much political value there is to having more people say they ‘strongly’ support you. They’re going to vote for you, anyway.”

text checked (see note) Nov 2006

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