Friday, April 14, 2006

Those failed Democratic courtiers

Due to the holidays, and the urgent need to write a weekend newspaper column (about John McCain) on an early deadline, I'll keep my blog observations brief today. I'll return tomorrow with lots to say from the Saturday mailbag. Anyway:

Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist, has an interesting piece this week about the strong - and perhaps burdensome - influence of big-shot consultants inside the Democratic party. His basic argument, which he will apparently address as well in a forthcoming book, is that these Beltway strategists deserve considerable blame for the failures of Al Gore and John Kerry during the last two presidential elections.

Klein writes that these consultants "have become specialists in caution," captives of their focus groups, and that they drained whatever spontaneity Gore and Kerry might have otherwise displayed on the stump. (I have heard that Bob Shrum, a top consultant to both men, is disputing some of the details in Klein's account, but let us not give his complaints too much weight. Bob Shrum retired from politics last year with a record of 0-8 in presidential races.)

It's fair to say that Gore and Kerry share some of the blame as well; perhaps, if they had been more instinctive candidates, they would not have elevated the consultants to guru status. Gore and Kerry ended up paying big bucks for bad advice - notably, the traditional (and wrongheaded) Democratic argument that voters are looking at issues, rather than character.

Klein's key passage:
"'We're going to meet the voters where they are,' Shrum had told me early in the Kerry campaign, which sounded innocent enough—but what he really meant was, We're going to follow our polling numbers and focus groups. We're going to emphasize the things that voters think are important. In fact, Shrum had it completely wrong. Presidential campaigns are not about 'meeting the voters where they are.' They are about leadership and character. Mark Mellman, Kerry's lead pollster, figured that out too late. 'If you asked people what they were most interested in, they would say jobs, education and health care,' he later said. 'But they thought the President should be interested in national security'."

I concur with Klein.
I can't recount the number of meals I have shared with Democratic consultants who have told me, "We're right on the issues, the voters are exactly where we are on the issues." I would inevitably counter with, "Yeah, but you guys were saying that all through the '80s, when the voters were always with the Democrats on the issues - but Ronald Reagan got elected twice anyway." Their answer would be, "Yeah, but Reagan was Reagan, that was different."

They never learn. In 2004, most voters sided with the Democrats on federal spending for social programs, the environment, Social Security, on down the line. Yet they chose to re-elect Bush, because the Republicans had framed the campaign on character, and on their terms (Bush said at his convention that you'd always know where he stood, even if you disagreed; Kerry was painted as the flip-flopper).

And, to underscore what Klein writes, I have dredged up my notes from Sept. 2, 2004. That was the day when I knew Kerry would lose.

The scene was a New York City conference room, during the waning hours of the Republican national convention. The Kerry campaign had decided to fly all their top consultants into town, to reassure the national press that everything was going great for them. (If things had really been going great, they wouldn't have bothered to fly in.)

So we met at a breakfast, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The talk quickly turned to the anti-Kerry ads, sponsored by those famed Swift Boat veterans. As the Swift Boat attacks mounted during August, the Kerry people had said nothing. Days and even weeks had passed, with little or no response. We asked the consultants, why didn't you hit back right away?

Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager, replied that the Swift Boat attacks were "beside the point, in terms of what most voters want to hear."

And what was that?

Tad Devine said that voters wanted to hear about economic issues, not "an exchange of insults."

But why couldn't you do both?

Devine: "We could see that (the Swift Boat attack) was resonating immediately. But we (decided) to engage it in the serious media when the time was engage it on our timetable, not theirs."

To me, that was the key remark. By "serious media," what he also called "the credible media," Devine was specifically referring to The New York Times. The Swift Boat attacks had circulated for many days, coursing through the conservative/cable/online media, before The Times finally took notice. Yet it was a testament to the elitism of the Democratic consultants that the story didn't count until it landed in the Times. It was the old way of thinking, baldly revealed.

So the question is, will the next Democratic candidate be weighed down by the consultant class? Or, at the very least, can the next round of consultants be as nimble as President Bush's tight-knit team?

A final question: Didn't I promise a brief posting? Sorry about that.