Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stevens-Moulitsas exchange misses the mark

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Contrary to the premiss of the Book Club discussion between Stevens and Moulitsas -- that "consultants" make a big difference one way or another in campaigns -- Presidential campaigns today are not all that different from 1968 or 1948, just a lot longer.

Few candidates for President ever had a more refined sense of how to organize a campaign, tailor messages to targeted voters and leverage the media fully than Bob Kennedy. And very few have had the services of more or better professionals than Bobby did. The fact that he was cruelly murdered at age 42 at the peak of his campaign naturally puts a gloss on everything he did ...more »and said and encourages hagiography by his supporters and adversaries alike.

Generally, one ought to be skeptical about this whole exchange and particularly about the notion that the influence of consultants and the media turn otherwise "genuine" candidates into fluff. Harry Truman's "turnip days" may seem more "genuine" but that's mainly because he did win reelection in 1948. Harry's down home farm boy background was indeed a political plus, which he exploited for all it was worth, even though the Harry Truman of 1945 had put the farm behind him decades before. Harry also refined the "whistle stop" train tour of the country where he dutifully delivered the "sound bite" of the day to crowds while ensuring that it hit the papers and radio everywhere in each news cycle. Harry may not have had a Bob Shrum charging hundreds of dollars an hour, but he had the equivalent expertise in politics from Ed Flynn and other notable party Bosses, who didn't charge by the hour but got handsomely paid.

What began to change in 1968 and changed dramatically in 1972 was the sheer length and difficulty of campaigning for President in a country that spans a continent, due to the radical and sudden democratization of intra-party politics. Even in 1968, when McCarthy and Kennedy competed in the few then-available primaries, the bulk of delegates to the Democratic National Convention were chosen by party organizations and were pretty firmly in Hubert Humphrey's corner as of Bob Kennedy's death. Kennedy had a chance based on his California win against McCarthy to persuade party leaders to abandon Humphrey and support him. While we'll never know, it's unlikely they would have.

Beginning in 1972, Presidential campaigns had to be focused for the first time ever not on assembling party leaders' support but on winning delegates directly in primaries and caucuses. By 1976, candidates had begun to campaign extensively in targeted states (e.g., Jimmy Carter in Iowa) more than a year before the conventions. This very quickly evolved into an almost endless campaign season, with a need to reach at one and the same time a huge national audience and a smaller set of targeted state-by-state audiences. TV -- both paid advertising and so-called "free media" -- was and is the only reliable way to accomplish this simply because the candidate can only be in one place at a time and time to reach so many people is precious. Of course, lately the Internet has added a new dimension to the available media tools but it's not going to make campaigns shorter or the country any smaller.

None of this, though, has any necessary effect on how candidates present themselves or what they say. It may seem that way since only what is truly memorable about what Truman or JFK had to say remains readily available and widely quoted. As a candidate, JFK had a day by day "message discipline" any current Presidential wannabe would want to emulate. And he had very artfully canned issues as well -- Quemoy and Matsu, the "missile gap," a tap dance on civil rights, to name a few.

It seems to me that Moulitsas's gripe with Kerry and some others boils down to his not liking what Kerry had to say, rather than some useful insight into the role of "consultants." He is obviously also peeved at the failure of more than a few voters to be attracted by Howard Dean's supposedly more genuine approach. But whether Dean was more "genuine" or Kerry more "scripted" may not have been the issue in early 2004 at all. It may simply be that people did not like Dean or like what he had to say and, thus, didn't care whether he was being genuine about it.

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