Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us
Pretty young girls in pleated miniskirts were jumping up and down at the back of the gymnasium during Vice President George Bush’s raucous campaign appearance at Christ the King High School in Queens, New York, on October 20, 1988. The girls were cheerleaders and on this bizarre occasion their eyes shone and they squealed with excitement and shouted themselves hoarse at every mention of death.
Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a New York Republican, had introduced the vice president as “George Bush, who supports the death penalty.” The students roared their approval and waved little American flags. Then Bush himself intoned, “When a police officer is murdered, the killer should pay with his life.” Upon hearing this, the cheerleaders leaped into the air and waved their pompoms. All of this was pure demagoguery. As president, Bush would play no part in the prosecution and punishment of local crimes. As president, in fact, he did not preside, either, over the execution of a single federal convict. The aim of this display was simply to point out that his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, opposed capital punishment.
Bush’s teenage death-penalty rally at Christ the King ranked as perhaps the dreariest moment in the famously dreary election year 1988. It was the year of Republican consultant Lee Atwater’s attack strategies and Roger Ailes’s negative campaign commercials—“the most negative presidential campaign of the television era, at least up to that time,” says Jules Witcover, a longtime Washington reporter and columnist who writes with passion against the degeneration of our political system.
Yet this year, against all expectation and against the normal reverse Couéism of politics—every day in every way it gets worse and worse—after the primaries the presidential campaign is being waged on a reasonably high plane. Its tone is, overall, a refreshing defiance of what has seemed to be inexorable debasement of the political process.
Both apparent nominees, Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, come from the mainstream of their respective parties and both tend toward the center. Bush poses as the “compassionate conservative” and Gore as the “pragmatic liberal.” Both descend from political nobility, Bush the son of a former president and Gore the son of a former senator. This is a contest between two elite candidates that might be taking place in some other guise even if we had never had the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. But both were elevated, legitimately, by the American political system.
One nagging flaw, perhaps even more dangerous than destructive negative campaigning, is that the system is closed, and in this case confined to two candidates who are really cut from much the same cloth. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are banging at the doors, and the political establishment, consisting of both politicians and the media, seems determined not to let them in on the grounds that they have no public support. This is a circular argument; one of the reasons they have so little support is that they are generally ignored by the press and will most likely be barred from the presidential debates, which require a base support of 15 percent of the electorate. In their absence, the issues they raise—maldistribution of wealth, the plight of many working families in a global economy, immigration reform—are likely to go unmentioned in a national election.
Bush and Gore have conducted a generally civil and more or less relevant debate. Both are offering proposals to enrich retirement accounts, improve the educational system, and reduce taxes for working people. They have made speeches about transportation and energy policy, and they are debating, through aides, whether or not to build a full-scale missile defense system, as Bush seeks, or a limited one, as President Clinton and Gore have proposed. (Neither has adequately recognized the many experts who claim that any such system is not likely to be workable, especially in detecting decoys.)
Even the death-penalty debate has recently been conducted on a higher level than before, in part because the candidates agree on execution. The controversy over executions in Texas is at least relevant to Bush’s record as governor and has afforded a national look at whether Texas protects the rights of defendants or, as the evidence suggests, allows them in some cases to be doomed without adequate defense. Bush seems to be teetering on the edge of danger by proclaiming his state to have a perfect record in executing only the guilty. But Gore also favors the death penalty and cannot challenge him head-on.
If anything it is the talk show press that has cheapened the discussion by concentrating on such side issues as whether or not Bush, victim of what seems to be a chronic wiseguy smirk, has looked suitably solemn as he lets executions proceed. Here, for example, are two of our ablest commentators, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the day after Texas executed Gary Graham, who was convicted of murder on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Shields, speaking of Bush: “I thought this was the finest moment of his campaign as he explained his position. He did it outside of a press conference, in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious words and manner.” Gigot agreed that “as long as he had a sober demeanor” when presiding over executions, Bush would not suffer any political penalty. Lesson for Bush: On execution day, do not smirk. Avoid girls with pompoms.
Gore’s campaign has been unusually unlucky, with high-level feuding among advisers, the resignation of the campaign chief, Tony Coelho, and the leak of a Justice Department official’s recommendation that a special counsel be named to investigate whether Gore has been truthful about his knowledge of a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in 1996. His effort to portray Bush’s tax and Social Security proposals as “risky schemes” was somewhat undermined when new budget projections predicted an extra $1 trillion in revenues over the next ten years. But the sniping between the two campaigns, though at times whiny, has not as yet become dirty.
In a conventional sense, this campaign season provides evidence for Professor Roderick P. Hart, who in Campaign Talk espouses the contrarian view that our presidential campaigns are as good as can be expected and, as a national conversation among politicians, press, and the public, provide more illumination than is generally understood. Witcover, a journalist who started covering elections when reporters rode campaign trains and handed their typewritten copy sheet by sheet to Western Union operators, believes the system is broken and must be changed.
Witcover’s book, written in 1999, does not take up the possibilities of the candidacy of either Buchanan or Nader. I don’t believe either of them has a chance of winning the presidency. Buchanan’s attempt to run as the Reform Party candidate seems terminally disorganized. Nader, as the Green Party candidate, is running on a ticket with Winona LaDuke, an Ojibway Indian activist from a Minnesota reservation. (A little-known detail: Mario Cuomo, once much discussed as a presidential candidate, played professional baseball under the name Glendy LaDuke.) Nader has risen to 7 percent in some polls and is not likely to rise much higher. Even the labor union support he courts so effectively accounts for less than 10 percent of the private workforce, not enough on which to base a traditional workingman’s campaign. But both Nader and Buchanan discuss issues like corporate welfare and the true impact of global trade on American working families, a vital subject for millions of people that is being ignored by the mainstream campaign in the shared, Republican-Democrat assumption that foreign trade is inherently good for all.
Nader, in addition, resurrects issues like universal national health insurance and a “living wage”—a higher minimum wage that would be partly subsidized by the government—that have entirely dropped from political discussion. Is it because the people fear that health coverage for themselves and their children will be too regulated—it is being privately regulated in any case—or because in this money-driven system, their voices are not heard? Nader also raises new issues, like the cost of getting to work. He points out that people earning $6.60 an hour in the new “edge city” and exurban growth areas have to buy cars to commute to their low-paying jobs, and worries at the burden this places on them. A corporate executive can deduct the cost of a limousine to take him to the Super Bowl—the ultimate welfare Cadillac—but a city-dwelling nurse’s aide cannot deduct the cost of getting to a suburban hospital.
For his part, Buchanan combines a populist, occasionally xenophobic economics with fervor against abortion, an issue that Bush apparently would like to sweep under the rug even though millions of people voted for him on the assumption that he is a standard right-to-life candidate.
Nader complains, with familiar hyperbole, that in fact we have only one party, that the Republicans and Democrats have become “look-alike parties” raising money from the same contributors, pursuing the same upscale voters, and generally following the same policies. It’s easy to dismiss Nader as a spoiler who will only sabotage Gore’s appeal to normally Democratic voters, especially those in labor unions. But to Nader, there’s nothing to spoil. “You can’t spoil a system that’s spoiled to the core,” he says in his standard speech. “[The two major parties] have corrupted themselves in concentric circles. It’s not just legalized bribery, it’s legalized extortion. These political shakedowns give a whole new dimension to the corruption.”
Hart, a professor of communication and government at the University of Texas, breaks with the current fashion of deploring the supposed degradation of our national politics. “Throughout the year,” he writes, “the campaign will be criticized for being beneath the American people. Its snide news coverage will be denounced, as will the candidates’ evasions and pomposities. Its advertisements will be surely savaged, even if they are comparatively benign. Ultimately, a great cry will be raised: ‘Can’t we do better than this?”‘ Hart’s book suggests we cannot do better and need not do better. “The election of 2000 will have its infirmities but it will traverse a course blazed by its forebears and in so doing it will advance the democracy.”
The evidence for this Panglossian conclusion comes from a computer program called DICTION that Hart used to analyze the language used by candidates and their surrogates in post-World War II elections. Speech texts, debate transcripts, and other campaign statements were run through the computer and the words were counted and sorted into their various emotive categories—Realistic, Optimistic, Commonality, etc. The results were then studied for insights into how well the candidates communicated what they were trying to convey. Hart maintains that they exert no conscious control over the range of words they use and that their vocabulary can even convey an opposite message from the one intended.
Study of the candidates’ language led Hart to the conclusion that governors—e.g., Bush—have an advantage as presidential candidates. They are fresh voices on the national scene and they enter a presidential campaign familiar with local issues that are generally of immediate importance to voters. “What makes governors special?” he asks. “Generally speaking, they are more Realistic than their federal counterparts…and they are considerably more Optimistic as well. They are humbler, less inclined to refer to themselves, and also less prone to making patriotic illusions.”
Word analysis also indicates that presidential debates serve the country well, Hart says. In face-to-face confrontations, candidates must tone down their extreme rhetoric and abandon some of the sweeping statements of the campaign. “Presidential debates are comparatively sober, comparatively focused, comparatively plainspoken, comparatively self-risking encounters with some potential to create genuine dialogue. Or so my data show.”
Voters reward politicians, Hart says, who use familiar language and concepts, apparently the more banal the better. Of all the postwar candidates, Ronald Reagan used the most tired imagery and stayed closest to the rhetorical center, Hart says, with the exception of the ceremonial speeches Peggy Noonan wrote for him. Also at the top of the list for pedestrian speech were Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower. At the other extreme, most differing in style from what Hart finds to be the norm, was Ross Perot:
One of the most intriguing findings of this study is that candidates who approximate the overall stylistic norm for politicians in the United States were most likely to become president…. While the mass media tend to reward rhetorically precocious candidates (they are far more colorful, after all), the American people themselves listen for the middle ground. When they find it, they embrace it.
I find this interesting, but not especially persuasive. Speech involves facial expression, body language, and intonation as much as vocabulary. A text from, say, Ronald Reagan or even Michael Dukakis that might look dead on paper may become inspiring when delivered with warmth and feeling. Two of the more embarrassing mistakes I ever made in covering political conventions, for example, came when, for deadline reasons, I had to write an assessment of a speech on the basis of the prepared text, before the actual delivery. Both times the written words were flat and stale, and both times the delivery transcended the actual words. Readers who saw the speech and then read my pre-written analyses must have been utterly baffled by my downbeat conclusions.
But there is a deeper question: What makes a good campaign? Is the public best served by a civil debate in which both sides generally agree and the winning candidate is the one who uses the happiest language while sticking closest to conventional rhetoric? And what makes a bad campaign? Is the public worse served by a screaming contest of negative ads between two candidates who generally agree—or by a national election in which several serious issues, such as the ones Nader and Buchanan raise, are excluded from the debate?
Compared to this, Hart’s computer studies of language seem both trivial and academic. Of course, language matters. In 1990, Representative Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who was then House minority whip, even issued an approved vocabulary for conservative political hopefuls in a pamphlet called “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control.” Liberals were to be derided with words like corrupt, cynical, pathetic, sick, and traitorous, while conservatives were to be called tough, proud, courageous, and truthful. The pamphlet was issued, Gingrich’s organization GOPAC said, in response to pleas from thousands of ordinary people who wanted to be able to talk like Newt.
I am also uneasy about using statistical computer analysis to reach conclusions about a complex social and political event like an election, which is the product of so many unmeasurable factors. Some econometricians pretend to predict national elections to within a tenth of a percentage point using selected economic data and poll numbers in the six months preceding election day. According to this school, the speech of the candidates would not matter at all; the vote is predetermined by measurable, impersonal economic forces. Yet we can understand the political scientists’ fascination with computers and equations; without them, their insights might be dismissed by other academics as mere journalism.
Jules Witcover is one of the original “boys on the bus,” a veteran of the days when reporters were all men and a long day on the campaign trail ended up in a hotel bar or an open-door suite with everyone, including the candidate himself, drinking and swapping stories. To Witcover, this was harmless camaraderie. “In [John F.] Kennedy’s time, the yardstick for reporting on the personal behavior of the candidates and presidents was whether such conduct appeared to affect the performance of their official duties,” he writes. While he insists that neither he nor other reporters knew of Kennedy’s womanizing, he adds: “Even if it had been known, however, it probably would not have been reported, given the journalistic standards of the time.”
In that bygone era, Witcover reminds us, campaigning started far later than it does today, polling was in its infancy, political parties were far more important, and governors controlled state delegations and could, theoretically, make deals at the convention. After the 1968 campaign, in which Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without winning a single primary, the party reformed itself to weaken the power of the political bosses. Their power has been replaced, however, not by a grass-roots process but by the financial angels who now dominate the system. Witcover believes that the current process, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the old one, “has been hijacked—by money, ambition, and, yes, the ingenuity of the men and women who practice the art of politics in all its forms.”
Witcover’s villains are familiar: the hired-gun campaign consultants who believe only in winning, no matter for which party; the ceaseless fund-raising that, most dramatically, corrupted President Clinton’s reelection campaign in 1996 and may yet damage Vice President Gore; the television commentators, many of them former politicians, now posing as journalists; the drawn-out primary process that leaves no real role for political professionals at the conventions; the haphazard selection of vice-presidential nominees; the Electoral College, which has three times chosen the candidate who did not win the most votes; the myth that campaigns require candidates to intermix with real voters.
Yet, as a good reporter, Witcover gives both sides of the argument. He criticizes Clinton’s adviser Dick Morris, for example, for having no party loyalty and quotes several of Morris’s rivals as saying that Morris believes in nothing. But then he lets Morris defend himself:
Now, most political consultants apart from myself are loyal to ideology or at least party. I’m not loyal to either of those, and I think I’m right, because I don’t think that party stands for anything in this country anymore. I literally do not give a damn whether a person is a Democrat or a Republican. There’s no difference. They have different ideas, but I don’t believe that one party is better than the other. I think there are some things that Democrats are better at and some things that Republicans are better at.
Similarly, Witcover deplores negative advertising, which can so poison the political debate that voter turnout is depressed. But he quotes the opposite view of Democratic consultant David Doak that negative ads let a challenger raise doubts about a candidate who has spent a fortune to build up his image. “In a sense it’s one of the good things about negative—it’s an equalizer,” Doak says. “Because if we just had a positive campaign rule, then only the rich people would win. Now, there’s a lot wrong about negative that I don’t like; that’s one of the good things I do like.”
Witcover is most scathing in his attack on political commentators, including his colleagues: “Print reporters trained in being precise and fair doff their newsroom hats and put on buffoon’s headgear before the cameras, saying the first thing that pops into their heads. Small wonder that the serious craft of journalism has in many quarters become no more credible than the used-car sales business.” He writes:
The chief abomination in this regard is the weekend television talk show hosted by [John] McLaughlin, a man who lost a race for the US Senate in Rhode Island before going to the Nixon White House as an official fact-spinner by virtue of his abrasively offensive personality and then making himself a television celebrity. In the guise of serious political-issue discussion, he and his fellow panelists put on weekly entertainments that trivialize politics and cannibalize each other with their sound-bite shouting matches and off-the-wall predictions.
Witcover touches on another phenomenon that is a sore point with many journalists: the number of former political employees who have crossed the line into television and now appear to be journalists. The list is long: McLaughlin, William Safire, George Will, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Tony Blankley, William Kristol, Bill Press, Mary Matalin, and others. If the TV studio containing all these worthies burned down, not one of them would know how to report the fire. You can still occasionally find “the press” on Russert’s Meet the Press. You can also find maidens on Maiden Lane. The problem is figuring out who they are.
TV further trivializes the campaign by looking for sound-bites, which grow ever briefer. Candidates and their spokesmen strive for the quip that will make it to the evening news or the next day’s Hotline, a subscribers-only computer-delivered summary of the day’s political reporting that is much read by insiders. It is noteworthy that Hotline devotes as much attention to the political quips on the late-night comedy talk shows as it does to the politicians’ remarks. In this world, Jay Leno and David Letterman are just as important as The New York Times.
Witcover’s suggestions are largely hortatory and mostly technical, and he gives no reason to believe anyone will take them seriously. Candidates, he says, should clean up the swamp of negative campaigning and overcome their adversarial attitude toward the press. Free television time could ease the pressures for endless fund-raising to pay for commercials. He cites John Deardourff, a Republican consultant, who proposes that all campaign commercials be banned after the conventions, on the grounds that the news media is delivering whatever message the voters need.
“Something also needs to be done to overcome the huge advantage that accrues to wealthy candidates, as a result of the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech protects the right of any political candidate to spend whatever he wants of his own money,” Witcover says. What this “something” might be, he does not say. Presumably a new Supreme Court ruling would do the trick; but there is no sign that the present court would change the prevailing doctrine.
Another change he recommends would shift the primary schedule to move larger states later in the process, an idea similar to one proposed by a Republican commission on primaries. However, past practice has shown that candidates seeking national recognition are willing to spend themselves broke even in pre-season, meaningless contests like the 1999 Iowa straw polls or the 1996 Louisiana caucus. The rationale has been that if you don’t do well in the early contests, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, you are out of the race. Changing the schedule does not change that political logic; the early states will remain influential, and perhaps decisive.
Finally, Witcover would abolish the Electoral College, which he describes as an “accident waiting to happen.” It is perfectly possible for a candidate to win a majority vote and yet lose in the Electoral College, as happened in 1824, 1876, and 1888.
Witcover’s book is smoothly written, entertaining, and informative, based on a lifetime of first-hand reporting; its useful recommendations might seem more urgent if the current election year were an example of flagrant abuses that violated the public’s sense of propriety. Instead, there has been some mildly caustic comment on Bush’s enormous ability to raise contributions and some yawns over the latest attempt to pin a scandal on Gore for possibly giving contradictory answers about the non-crime of campaigning at a Buddhist temple.
The electoral process in this country is not always attractive, but on current performance it does not seem to be so broken that it demands a radical fix, even if one were possible. Much as I would like to see Nader and Buchanan included in the presidential debate, it is fairly obvious that neither is a plausible candidate.* Both are politically self-indulgent. Buchanan has tried and failed to win the Republican nomination twice, but has made little effort to build a grass-roots movement since. One of the reasons he allied himself with, of all people, Lenora Fulani, a Marxist from the New Alliance Party, is that she managed to get on the ballot in all fifty states in 1996. Nader has inspired thousands of idealistic young followers to help him preserve the environment, call attention to the condition of the poor, and expose the economic damage that can be done by global corporations. He is raising questions that should be nationally debated about the specific effects of global trade on American workers and about the inequalities of US income distribution. He is also a chronic loner, noble in his own way, but clearly not made for the give and take of national politics. If his campaign persuades the Gore strategists to take some of the issues he raises more seriously, he will have accomplished much. But his choice of Winona LaDuke makes one ask, Glendy LaDuke, where are you now?
So Bush and Gore are what we get.
At this point, Buchanan and Nader pose at least arithmetical and possibly offsetting threats to Bush and Gore, respectively. But in California, for example, where Nader draws 7 percent of the vote, Gore still beats Bush 46-35, according to a Field poll taken in June. Similarly, Buchanan is likely to get much of his support in states that, even with some sizable number of voters going for him, will be safely in Bush’s hands. The various mix-and-match possibilities will at least make for more interesting office pools even if they don’t tip the election. ↩