The Magazine

Mr. Klein Regrets

Longing for the good old days that never were.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Politics Lost

How American Democracy

Was Trivialized by People

Who Think You're Stupid

by Joe Klein

Doubleday, 272 pp., $23.95

Joe Klein is in a mood these days of regret and nostalgia, longing for the golden age of 1948 (or 1968), when the Democrats were in power, and Harry Truman (and/or Bobby Kennedy) were giving them hell (and/or giving them Aeschylus), and when men were men, not the puppets of pollsters; and politics was (largely) consultant-free.

This is expressed in his latest book about how American public life has been demeaned and degraded by the pollster-spin doctor industrial complex, and also the fall of the Democrats from majority status. (As a Democrat, Klein tends to lament the second occurrence; as a New Democrat, he seems to realize it's largely their fault.) The result is a strange book, part theory, part screed, and part reminiscence, that has interesting asides but no real coherence, that heads off in directions it never quite gets to, and whose whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Klein is at his best with that perennial favorite--What Ails the Demo crats?--a topic he understands well. "While Reagan's Republicans were offering a unified national message, the Democrats presented a fractured image that emphasized the primacy of their interest groups and, bizarrely, divided people according to racial identity a mere decade after liberals had made it a point of honor to oppose racial segregation," he writes.

Democrats may have lost the South in 1964, when their presidents pressed civil rights legislation, but they lost most of the rest of the country in the years following, when they switched from desegregation and assimilation to preferences and identity politics, squandered their clarity and moral authority, and found it impossible to explain to more than a handful of people why, if race shouldn't matter, it was imperative to make it the center of everything; and why, if merit was supposed to be paramount, promoting those who had low grades over those whose performance was better made sense.

There was the surrender to interest groups, the aversion to power, the excuses that never get better. "Reading through the rest of the Rolling Stone piece now, I am stunned by how little has changed--and how often, over the years, I have rewritten the same story," Klein tells. "Inevitably, various Democrats predict that the Republican project is too extreme to be sustained. 'It could be a tidal wave,' said Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin in 1981, predicting a Democratic renaissance, 'especially if Reagan insists on following the right-wing line on issues like abortion.'"

Inevitably, other Democrats are convinced that the problem is merely technical, that the party has to catch up in field organization or fund-raising or in developing its own think tanks or whatever, and then all will be well. "'We're focusing on modernization, computerization, direct mail,' Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt told me in 1981. 'Inevitably, I consult with various academic sages who put a frame around the larger picture, announcing the transition from the industrial to the information age.'"

This all makes great sense, and one longs for Klein to go on with it; but no, he goes back to the pollsters again--and we are off on a tour of the consulting industry, from its first stirrings with Pat Caddell and Roger Ailes in the 1968 cycle; to 1976, when Caddell is helping steer Jimmy Carter into the White House, and John Sears, one of the first crop of true hired guns in the business, is running Ronald Reagan's campaign into the ground. In fact, the war that year between Reagan and President Gerald Ford seems as nothing compared with the war in the Reagan camp between Sears and Reagan's loyalists from California (Michael Deaver and pollster Dick Wirthlin foremost among them), which rages on for four years with many pitched battles, ending in a palace coup by the candidate, when Reagan himself boots Sears out of the castle on the night of the 1980 New Hampshire primary, when he conquered the elder George Bush.

From there, it is on to 1988, when Dick Gephardt and the elder Bush, two intelligent men with charisma impairment, are turned into unlikely populists by Bob Shrum and Lee Atwater, two men who tended to run the same campaign over and over, with the candidate himself merely an afterthought. (This was a quick fix, but no real improvement: Gephardt took off, but didn't quite make it; Bush became president, but lost four years later, after Atwater had died.)

Things improved somewhat with the advent of Bill Clinton, the only Democrat since John Kennedy with a clue how to run a campaign on the national level, and who knew how to use his consultants without being run by them. But things regressed once again with Al Gore and John Kerry, two empty suits lacking controlling moral authority, a pair of combined moral and policy vacuums into which hordes of consultants would flow. Kerry "seemed eerily intent on replicating every last Democratic mistake," Klein tells us. "There were too many cooks, and there was no clear sense of the broth. The prevailing vagueness, the lack of planning, the absence of clear lines of authority, the peremptory addition of the big-name consultant . . . were familiar symptoms of the Democrats' quadrennial campaign management miasma. Very early on, the whispering began: 'This is just like the Gore campaign.'"

Not quite. Gore ended up, Klein says, in a rage at and harassed by his own team of advisers, who at times cut him off at the knees. "'The consultants were insistent on running the campaign they wanted to run,' said Tony Coelho, a onetime Gore campaign manager. 'If Gore disagreed with them, or wanted to do something else, they sandbagged him.'" As a result, Klein suggests, Gore went into the debates with Bush so enraged at his aides he ignored their suggestions. They warned him to cut back on the sighs; he sighed often and lustily. They warned him to stay in his place, control his aggression, and not to play dominance games with his rival. In the third debate, Gore stalked over to Bush and hovered above him, looking ridiculous. If, as many people believe, Gore lost the election in the debates with his unhinged behavior, Klein suggests his consultants unhinged him--and set him up for his loss.

Whew. Seen in this light, Pollsters 'R Us do come over more or less like a wrecking crew--until you notice the flaw in this theory, which Klein has uncovered himself. "'People think Clinton does what the consultants tell him to do,'" Klein quotes Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg, "'but it's the exact opposite. He picks his consultants according to where he wants to go.'" And there it is. Since 1980, three of four presidents have managed to be reelected, and while all three of them have been deeply involved with consultants (and even paired with them, as Reagan with Wirthlin and Deaver; Clinton with Greenberg, and with the team of Begala and Carville; and Bush II with Karl Rove and some others), they used them in a different way than did the losers, and all always stayed in control. All formed deep bonds with small groups of people who were with them from their early days as governors, who were bound to them by deep ties of personal loyalty, and warmly endorsed their ideas.

There were in their campaigns--or were, after Reagan tossed Sears out the window--no hired guns who were in it wholly for money; no massive turnovers or turf wars and firings; no rival teams of consultants with different agendas. The consultants refined the presentations made of their candidates, but they did not create their personas and policies.

"Clinton," says Klein, "had a sophisticated understanding of how to use his consultants. They could show him the playing field; they could provide numbers and language and sometimes even ideas. They could tell him which issues simply wouldn't fly, and, more important, how to sell the ones he cared about," but never which issues to care about, or what stands to take. When a consultant can do this, it is the fault of the candidate, not the consultant, and still less of the 'system' itself. Long before they were running for president (if they were ever not running for president), both Gore and Kerry had authenticity shortfalls, and a habit of trying to have things both ways.

In making the transition from being a New Democrat and border state politician to being a national candidate who had to please his party's liberal donor and interest groups, Gore had a habit of doing total l80s, reversing himself completely on hot-button issues, and then denying (in the face of the evidence) that anything ever had changed. In the early 1980s, he had backed an amendment declaring the fetus a person, then became a supporter of late-term abortion; he had turned around in 1988 on his signature issue, cozying up to a major polluter; he had bragged in 1988 to a Tennessee audience of his pride in planting and tending and reaping tobacco; and told a national audience at his party's 1996 convention that he had been a dedicated foe of the tobacco industry since his sister's death from lung cancer--which occurred in 1984.

John Kerry had gone through much the same thing, selling himself as both a war hero and critic: Lauding the troops, then calling them criminals; voting for the first Iraq war measure in 2002, when it seemed in his own interest, then turning against the war a year later, when Howard Dean was cleaning up among Democratic primary voters.

What happened in these campaigns was that the warring consultants swarmed into a massive principle vacuum that was already baked into the candidates' makeup, and existed before they arrived. Consultants did not, as Klein seems to believe, strip Gore and Kerry of their "authenticity"; they merely exposed and accented their lack of it. The only authentic thing about them was their sense of entitlement, and that had come through loud and clear.

Klein starts his book longing for Bobby, longing specifically for the Robert F. Kennedy who, on the night of April 4, 1968, made his remarkable impromptu and unrehearsed talk to a largely black audience about the murder of Martin Luther King.

"Nearly forty years later," Klein tells us,

Kennedy's words stand as a sublime example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form . . . to heal, to educate, and to lead--but also, sadly, they represent the end of an era: the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.

Where to begin? Kennedy's remarks took their force not from the age but from a unique and appalling dynamic of violence. They were given on the event of a murder, by a man whose brother had been murdered, and who would be murdered himself two months later. In itself, 1968 was a pit of a year, marked mainly by meanness and terrible leadership, when all of the candidates fell well below the occasion: If there was much education or healing or leadership coming from the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, or Spiro Agnew, I seem to have missed it, and so, too, apparently, did everyone else. The 1968 election was one of the worst ever run, with two of the most flawed and inadequate candidates ever presented; and so, too, for different reasons, was the election that followed.

That was followed by the most inadequate president of the 20th century, and vigor had to be brought back by Reagan, who would turn 70 shortly after being sworn in. If it is true that the pre-consultant quartet of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy was infinitely better than the quartet of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter that followed, the quartet after them--Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43--was also more competent, suggesting consultants had little to do with it. Consultants also had nothing to do with most of the presidents of the previous century, many of whom were absolute nullities. No romance and vigor for them.

Like Henry Adams, who had known Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and still insisted he had never met a great man (because neither fit his template or belonged to his family), Klein can't see authenticity where it exists. The two dominant figures of the 1990s--Newt Gingrich, and the unforgettable William J. Clinton--were a great many things, but bland and controlled were not two of them.

George H.W. Bush may have been less than authentic as a candidate and as a consumer of pork rinds, but he was as fully authentic as the man who had joined the Navy in 1942 on his 18th birthday (and became the youngest pilot in the armed forces) when Saddam crossed the border into Kuwait. (And let us pause here to give thanks for the focus groups: We can thank our lucky stars that the Willie Horton ads worked to the effect that Michael Dukakis was not in the Oval Office when Saddam invaded, or Iraq might be in Kuwait--and Saudi Arabia--and the region itself a much bigger mess.)

As for George W., Klein liked him somewhat before 9/11, when neither he nor anyone else stood for anything interesting, and while we were still on our ten-year vacation from history. But the more authentic Bush gets, the more Klein dislikes him, to the point that by the end he is channeling E.J. Dionne (and/or Democratic National Committee boilerplate), insisting that the war in Iraq is a catastrophe, cooked up for wholly political purposes. This has it all backwards: Bush took a huge risk going into Iraq, while the political thing would have been to rest on his laurels (and sky-high ratings) from the war in Afghanistan, while kicking the Iraq can down the road for the next administration to handle--as his father, and Clinton, had done. No one was more "authentic" than Bush in the 2004 election, when he made it abundantly clear he was prepared to lose in defending his vision, and he quite nearly did so.

"If you want [the people] to take a risk, you're going to have to take one yourself," Klein preaches earlier. "Sadly, most politicians are neither risk-takers nor leaders. They are followers--of convention, of public opinion . . . while leadership is an art." By these standards, Bush is a risk-taker and a leader; but Klein doesn't see it, as he doesn't like where Bush is leading. He also says that the administration is a train wreck, beyond hope of recovery. Perhaps. But in his second term Reagan was considered washed up and exposed as a lightweight, while the conservative movement was seen as a "detour" and already over. In his second term, Truman, with poll ratings a lot lower than Bush's, was considered an absolute failure, awash in corruption and crony-based scandals, who had "lost" China and mistakenly gotten us into a "war of choice" in Korea, a war much more bloody than Iraq.

In reality, authenticity is alive and well, and nowhere more so than at the 2004 Republican convention in New York, awash in pizzazz as well as testosterone, with Bush, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Ahnuld, unconstrained egos and risk-takers all. But they support the war, and Klein doesn't, so he sees nothing there but contrivance and vitriol. Actually, one can be "authentic" (and brave) on different sides of big issues: The late Paul Wellstone was plenty authentic, as is Joe Lieberman, but Klein mentions neither. If the Democrats had more Wellstones and Liebermans, and fewer Gores and Kerrys, they would be much better off, and so would the country.

Good and bad politicians have emerged in all eras, often together, and often the worst have preceded the best and most brilliant: James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln; Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The same public life produced all of these people. Eras do not make politicians; politicians make eras. There is nothing much wrong with bad politics that good politicians can't cure.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.