Creative Destruction

April 21, 2006

Authentic Candidates

Filed under: Politics — Ampersand @ 12:02 am

I know a lot of lefties hate Joe Klein, but I’ve never paid him much attention. On first reading, I thought this op-ed by Klein in Time was all right:

In early 2003, I had dinner with several of the consultants who advised Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign. I asked them why Gore, a passionate environmentalist, had spent so little time and energy talking about the environment during the campaign. Because we told him not to, the consultants said. Why? I asked. Because it wasn’t going to help him win….

Gore… lost an election he should have won, and he lost it on intangibles. He lost it because he seemed stiff, phony and uncomfortable in public. The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: just about every last word he uttered—even the things he said in the debates with George W. Bush—had been market-tested in advance. I asked Devine if he’d ever considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he’d talked about the things he really wanted to talk about, like the environment. “That’s an interesting thought,” Devine said.

But apparently not as interesting as all that: Devine, Bob Shrum and Mike Donilon fitted Senator John Kerry for a similar straitjacket in the 2004 campaign.

I think Klein has a good point. The “stand for nothing” approach used by both Gore and Kerry has been given more than an adequate chance – and, for Democrats, has been a dismal failure. In particular, the decision of most Senate Democrats to become unprincipled “yes” men to President Bush in the decision to invade Iraq has crippled the ability of the Democratic party to credibly provide a principled opposition to the invasion and occupation.

Klein’s best point, I think, is his critique of Kerry’s decision to not once mention Abu Ghraib, not even in the debates with Bush. By bowing to the pollsters, Kerry abrogated the chance to provide moral leadership to Americans. If he hadn’t chickened out, who knows – maybe that could have changed the polls. Is it any wonder that so few Americans see Abu Ghraib as a morally important issue, when even the Democratic candidate for president isn’t willing to articulate a case against what happened at Abu Ghraib?

The problem with Klein’s op-ed is that Klein seems to halt critical thinking at his own front door. Although his criticism of the Gore and Kerry campaigns rings true, Klein doesn’t seem to appreciate how much fault lies with the media (and not only TV). It’s hard to blame politicians for constructing simplistic, poll-driven campaigns rather than talking substantively about issues, when the media is unwilling to report policy issues in any depth. The overwhelming focus of the media, in elections, is on simplistic storylines and horserace analysis. It is that environment which has created the market for the pollsters and consultants Klein decries.

Klien is a mugger complaining that purse snatchers and carjackers have ruined the neighborhood.

For further (and considerably harsher) criticism of Klein, check out this post on Lawyers Guns and Money.

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3 Comments »

  1. The overwhelming focus of the media, in elections, is on simplistic storylines and horserace analysis.

    No kidding.

    But then, we live in shallow times. I can’t tell who’s the chicken and who’s the egg anymore.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 21, 2006 @ 8:19 am | Reply

  2. Ampersand: The problem with Klein’s op-ed is that Klein seems to halt critical thinking at his own front door. Although his criticism of the Gore and Kerry campaigns rings true, Klein doesn’t seem to appreciate how much fault lies with the media (and not only TV).

    I don’t get that at all out of his article. He explicitly comments on the transformative effect of the media (though mostly the TV). The other more scathing critiques leveled against him (to which you linked) gripe that he didn’t write everything for everyone all at once. Phooey. He wrote about an idea not with book-length completeness but op-ed exposition and support.

    The overwhelming focus of the media, in elections, is on simplistic storylines and horserace analysis.

    Terrific remark, except that it’s not only true of elections but holding office, where office holders either run perpetual campaigns (as Klein remarked of Carter) or position themselves for their legacy (as Bush appears to be to be doing with his fascination over past presidential biography). The media is obviously part of the larger problem, but as Adam notes, it’s difficult to establish which problem precedes the other.

    Klien [Klein] is a mugger complaining that purse snatchers and carjackers have ruined the neighborhood.

    Can’t hold back from that swipe, huh? I pay no attention to journalists and pundits as media personalities, so if someone writes something worthwhile or worthless, I’m less inclined to be biased for or against the idea because of opinions I hold about the writer. Maybe that’s naive, but I’m more interested in the idea than the biography. Of course, that’s anathema in our current culture (cult, really) of personality and hero worship.

    Comment by Brutus — April 21, 2006 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

  3. Of course, that’s anathema in our current culture (cult, really) of personality and hero worship.

    Quite perceptive and probably explains why the War Hero Kerry was chosen as the most electable candidate. And whether Kerry was a genuine War Hero seemed to be the main issue (even from coverage I watched, which wasn’t really that much). Or who is more manly and looks more American…

    Seems like trivial concerns compared to the possibilites of the Oval Office.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 21, 2006 @ 4:23 pm | Reply


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