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Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

Hope beats anger,” Al From and Bruce Reed had advised in a March memo to John Kerry published in the Democratic Leadership Council’s Blueprint Magazine. “Hope will beat fear every time,” Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana dutifully said during her turn on the Fleet Center platform. (“Hope,” in these approved constructions, tended to be not “hope for” but just “hope,” strategically unattached to possibly entangling specifics about what the objects of the hope might be.) This nonspeak continued, a product of the “discipline” imposed on convention speakers by the DNC and the Kerry campaign: the Democratic candidates, it was said repeatedly on the Fleet Center platform, would bring hope and optimism back to America, build a stronger and more secure America, stand up for the values that Americans cared about. Hope and values, it was said, were what Americans believed in. Americans believed in the values of good-paying jobs, in the values of affordable health care, in protecting our security and our values. When Elizabeth Edwards was campaigning for the Democratic ticket in Tennessee, according to The New York Times, she cautioned supporters who had spoken harshly about the President not to be “too negative,” not to use the word “hypocritical.” “It’s not useful,” Mrs. Edwards said, “because that kind of language for swing voters—they are tired of partisanship.” These voters, she advised, “don’t want to hear how lousy the other guy is. Talk about how your values inform what you are doing.”

This belief in the existence of Americans who did not “want to hear how lousy the other guy is” but did want to hear a cuckoo clock repetition of the word “values” was wisdom derived from focus groups, which made it tricky, as the lethal efficiency of the Bush campaign in basing its entire effort on “how lousy the other guy is” would demonstrate. Swing voters, Elizabeth Edwards had learned from this wisdom, “don’t want to hear how lousy the other guy is,” yet on the evening at the Republican convention when Senator Zell Miller of Georgia went negative on John Kerry (“more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure…bowl of mush…. This politician wants to be leader of the free world—free for how long?”) the response among swing voters on whom MSNBC reported was strongly positive. “He was like the person next door,” one said. “Send a marine,” another said. (“And nothing makes this marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators,” Senator Miller had said.) “Focus groups will tell you they hate negative ads and love positive ads,” the Democratic strategist Steve McMahon told Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike of The New York Times. “But call them back four days later and the only thing they can remember are the negative ones.”

Focus groups have long been routine in virtually every business that involves marketing, yet most people who use them recognize their inherent flaw, which is that the average person who turns out for one is at the moment of appearing or not appearing self-selected, and so either a little more or a little less interested (there to press an agenda, say, or there for the cold cuts) than he or she is supposed to be. The motion picture industry, for example, has used focus groups extensively since the early 1980s, when a former Gallup researcher named Joe Farrell introduced the technique first to the marketing and eventually to the conceptual stages of pictures. (Before Farrell and his National Research Group arrived on the scene, motion picture “research” had pretty much consisted of passing out cards at previews and asking for a rating of “Excellent,” “Good,” or “Fair.”) I recall a producer telling me how he came to have doubts about focus research: after showing an unreleased picture to a supposedly virgin audience at a mall in Thousand Oaks, he heard from one volunteer for the focus group that he “preferred the ending you tested in Torrance.”

On the Thursday night when John Kerry was delivering his acceptance speech in the Fleet Center in Boston, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, at the request of MSNBC, had run such a group in a Cincinnati hotel. (Luntz is the pollster who advised California Republicans on how to win the recall of Governor Gray Davis. “While it is important to trash the governor,” he wrote in an internal memo reported in The San Francisco Chronicle, “it should be done in the context of regret, sadness, and balance.”) Luntz, it was widely reported, was “stunned” by his findings in Cincinnati. “It was one of the strongest positive reactions I’ve ever seen in a focus group,” Luntz said. “Kerry didn’t lose anybody. More importantly, he was able to convince [former Bush supporters in the group] that he is presidential, that he would be tough yet open-minded. They now see him as a credible commander-in-chief.”

The details of this session, during the days that followed the Democratic convention, were analyzed repeatedly, sifted and rubbed for meaning. Those present had ranged in age from nineteen to sixty-three. More than half had been men. A majority had voted for Bush in 2000, but only 40 percent were leaning toward voting for him in November. Disapproving reference to outsourcing had elicited strong positive responses. Outright criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of either its “war against terror” or its actual war in Iraq had elicited negative responses: “Cheap shot,” “Pollyanna-ish,” “a vast oversimplification of what obviously is a very complicated problem,” “To look back and point fingers, any reasonable person would have done what Bush did.” Overall, however, the winner that July evening in Cincinnati was seen to be Kerry: “The biggest question mark for many of these swing voters was whether Kerry had the fortitude to fight terrorists,” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported. “After his speech Thursday, most decided he did. While a few still disparaged his war record, almost all of these Republican-leaning voters said it’s fair to consider Kerry a ‘war hero.’”

That this focus group had consisted of only twenty people seemed in no way—neither for Luntz nor for any of the weekend commentators who mentioned it—to lessen its perceived significance; the reduction of the American electorate to twenty people who lived in or near Cincinnati was in fact the elegance of the mechanism, the demonstration that the system was legible, the perfected codex of the entire political process. “This room,” Luntz had declared after asking only three questions at a similar group the evening before, “is George Bush’s greatest nightmare.” Again, the wisdom was tricky: thirty-four days later, on the second morning of the Republican National Convention in New York, The Washington Post reported that its own polling showed that during those thirty-four days, five weeks during which the words “swift boat” had been allowed to dominate the news cycles, Senator Kerry had lost, on issues having to do with “leadership in the war on terror,” fifteen points to President Bush. “That’s what it means to play offense with terrorism and not just defense,” as Rudy Giuliani said to another point on the first evening of the Republican convention in Madison Square Garden.

2.

On one level nothing happens, but it is nothing at the very center of the world you are part of,” the Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman said to The New York Times by way of explaining the apparently intractable enthusiasm of American reporters for covering political conventions. “You are immersed to the eyeballs in the concentrated form of the culture you cover.” A perception of nothing at the very center of the world you live in might suggest that a change is in order, yet no change was in sight: we had reached a point in our political life at which the selected among the 15,000 reporters who attended each of this summer’s conventions could dominate the national discourse by talking passionately to one another on air about, say, “strong women” (“There’s no reason to attack Heinz Kerry for it, in fact I admire strong women.” “I agree”), or about “women who could take very untraditional roles and yet transmit traditional values” (the subject here was Laura Bush, whose way of transmitting “traditional values” in the “untraditional role” of prime-time speaker was to address the questions “that I believe many people would ask me if we sat down for a cup of coffee or ran into each other at the store”), or about “missed opportunities,” for example “putting Jimmy Carter out there to talk about foreign policy missteps” during a Democratic convention at which, Joe Scarborough decreed on MSNBC, “he should have talked about values.”

We took for granted that we would learn nothing from these discussions that reflected the actual issues facing the country, nothing suggesting that in the world off camera “foreign policy missteps” might be understood as inextricable from “values.” We recognized that by tuning in we entered a world where actual information would vanish: a single Firing Line or Hardball was capable of wiping the average human hard drive. No one who had ever fallen asleep watching C-SPAN and woken to find, say, Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media demanding to know why Michael Moore went after Halliburton (“but never tells you that the main competitor to Halliburton is Schlumberger—a French firm—do we really want a French firm? Why are we never told about that?”) could be unfamiliar with the obliterative effect of watching people shout at one another on a small lighted screen.

Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media would give way on the small lighted screen to Lisa De Pasquale of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute. Lori Waters of the Eagle Forum would be promised. Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham would be in the green room. Dee Dee Myers would offer “the other side.” We knew that. We also knew that the election for its explicators would once again come down to “character,” the “human connection,” or what Laura Bush would tell you about her husband if you ran into her at the store. We were no longer even surprised that the ability of these explicators to read character seemed to have atrophied beyond conceivable repair: consider the way in which the raw fragility of Teresa Heinz Kerry was instantly metamorphosed into “strong woman,” or her husband’s pained shyness into “aloofness,” or the practiced courtroom affability of the plaintiff’s attorney who was his running mate into “sunniness.”

Or, most persistently, the calculated swagger of the President himself into “resolve.” I recall, shortly after September 11, at a time when the President was talking about “those folks,” “smoking them out,” “getting them running,” “dead or alive,” reading one morning in both The Washington Post and The New York Times about how his words were his own, the product of what the Post called his “unvarnished instincts.” “Friends and staffers,” the Post reported, lending a hand in what was already an ongoing effort, the creation of the President as commander-in-chief and intuitive manager of his war on terror, “promise that it is genuine Bush.” The Post headline on this story was “An Unvarnished President on Display.” The Times went with “A Nation Challenged: The President; In This Crisis, Bush Is Writing His Own Script.” Yet every morning, according to the same stories, the President met with senior advisers, including Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, and Andrew H. Card Jr., for a ten-minute “communication” session, the purpose of which was, in the Times‘s words, “to strategize about the words, emotional cues, and information Mr. Bush should be conveying.”

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