Book Reviews: Politics Lost. By Joe Klein. How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People That Think You’re Stupid. Rating B+.
Joe Klein is also the author of Primary Colors the well received thinly fictionalized story of the Clinton Candidacy in ‘92 that was later made into a motion picture starring John Travolta as the Clinton character and Kathy Bates as a campaign aide who tries to save him from the bimbo factor.
This book is about the way political consultants using advertising techniques, polls, focus groups, 30-second television ads etc. have tried to package candidates and sell them like soap. Klein names names like Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, Pat Caddell, Bob Shrum, Karl Rove and others. He defines their political tactics, strategies, methods and philosophies. Mainly those philosophies are based on populist issues grounded in economic conditions and class inequities or social value issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion, gun control and the death penalty. The 2004 election was a classic standoff between these philosophies never getting to the true issues of the grounds for the attack on Iraq and the incompetent conduct of the war which still continues.
Klein takes us through a historical survey of presidential campaigns beginning with Bobby Kennedy before his death up to the present and the way that political consultants have presented the candidate to the voters. He makes the point that unless the candidate makes his true self known to the voter in a believable way (turnip moments where the candidate says something seemingly extemporaneously that is self defining) he is likely to lose.
The expression comes from Harry Truman’s acceptance speech delivered from rough notes at the 1948 Democratic Convention when he challenged the Republican controlled Congress to pass all the pie in the sky goals recited in the platform adopted at their recently concluded convention. He put teeth in his challenge by using his presidential prerogative to reconvene Congress for two weeks beginning on Missouri’s turnip day (cast your seeds wet or dry on July 25.) The Republican leadershi, actually called back on July 26 the 25 being a Sunday, blocked all legislative business for the two weeks proving Truman’s criticism that it was a do nothing Congress and this led to Truman’s astounding victory in November.
TURNIPMAN VS. THE WOODEN ROBOT
Gore was shoe horned into a populist message box and forced by his consultants to talk about things that were not his primary interest. Thus he came off as wooden and never perceived as much more than a Washington inside the belt politician spouting canned dialogue. Whereas George Bush through his misstatements, malapropisms and folksy manner made contact with the voters as a real human being despite all his faults. He was a human turnip so to speak.
If Gore was allowed to speak out about the environment, on which he was an expert and had many heartfelt views, he might have won the election of 2000 so decisively that the Republican Judges on the Supreme Court would not have been able to take it away from him.
Kerry was put in the position by his advisors of not being allowed to criticize the Commander In Chief during a time of war when that issue was on everyone’s mind. He also allowed his own war record to be falsely attacked by a swift boat veterans group’s falsehoods without immediate strong retaliation.
Klein points out that Clinton used political consultants but was able to prevent them from trivializing the issues or preventing him from speaking out on what he thought was important. In other words the consultants were his tools and not the other way around.
Do political consultants think the average voters are dumb? Probably, but they also have to get their candidate across and the consensus is the best way to do that is by television ads which by necessity have to be short and blunt. All the campaigns analyzed in the book took place during the age of television. So maybe the real problem is television with its vast opportunities for the candidate to be seen and heard and the limitations of time and money attached to TV campaigns. This causes the dumbing down of issues to sound bites.
Thus the rise of political consultants who are knowledgeable about image making in the television age. Also these consultants are usually paid a percentage of the money spent on television ads. So there is a built in bias towards a television based campaign.
Could Kerry or Gore have defeated Bush if they came across as human beings the way Clinton or Harry Truman did? Maybe. Klein points out that the candidate has to connect with the voter on a basic human level with common sense wisdom on a central issue. If the politician stands back talking about issues he doesn’t have a strong belief in it will show and he will lose. Whether Bush has strong beliefs about the social values or the religious values of his fundamentalist core followers is open to question.
However his mispronunciations, malapropisms and factual mistakes, like calling modern day Greeks, Grecians, make him sound like an everyman in a bar in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida on a Saturday night. The other thing that saved Bush in 2004 was the fact that Rove was able to get the 4 million Fundamentalist Christians that failed to vote in 2000 to vote. This was done through the urging of their ministers who had been promised that a vote for Bush would secure Supreme Court appointments of men against abortion and gay marriage.
One thing that is interesting and not really discussed is that the Truman speech, while given at the first televised Democratic convention, occurred at 1:30 a.m. in Philadelphia and at a time most people did not have televisions. So the vast majority of public became aware of the speech in the newspapers the next morning through verbatim accounts and reporter’s analysis. This print dissemination is quite different from subsequent turnip day speeches seen on live television by a vastly larger audience.
At the time of his speech Truman’s approval rating was at 36% and after calling the Republican bluff he went on to win an election in which he was considered the underdog and a sure loser to Thomas Dewey. Truman was a poker player.
This book has an interesting hypothesis with many anecdotes that make it a pleasure to read but it still is just an unproven theory. There are too many other variables in a presidential campaign that affect its outcome. In the last election the fact that Bush was an incumbent coupled with the war on terrorism probably made voters reluctant to vote him out of office for an unproven and unknown replacement as president.