What Our Politics Could Be
Nothing better highlights the tragedy of American politics that voters prefer to be out of the line of fire in a crucial presidential campaign. Why hasn’t debate over the great issues of our time thrilled and inspired voters? The problem with our democracy is not just flawed candidates, but systematic flaws in our election campaigns.
Nothing changes from one election to the next in America, regardless of the mix of candidates. That’s because the media, the candidates, the pollsters, and the consultants are codependent on the false idea that elections are exercises in manipulating voters, giving us negative campaigns and scripted, programmed candidates. The typical effect of the two rival campaigns has been to cancel each other out, with voters discounting as political all claims, charges, and countercharges.
Ironically, the peanut politics of this campaign benefits neither candidate. Kerry’s utterly conventional take-no-risks campaign may back him into the White House through bad news visited on the Bush administration. But he could have done so much more to help his own cause. Kerry needed to be more than an energized version of Michael Dukakis, who infamously said, on his way to becoming a footnote to history, that the 1988 campaign against George Bush Senior was “about competence, not ideology.” If you yearn to be a manager, apply at McDonald’s.
Kerry should have fired the hucksters – the admen, pollsters, and consultants who debase our politics – torn up the script and spoken directly from the heart to the American people. He should have transformed the campaign into a clash of ideas, actively leading the public rather than following the polls and tying issues together in unifying themes that express a compelling vision of the nation’s future.
A transformed Kerry campaign would have taken some issues and made them his own, perhaps by following the Ross Perot model of buying blocks of television time and talking directly to the American people. Imagine a discussion of energy and environmental policy that explained how Bush’s plans force us into perpetual dependence on the oil companies and fossil fuels, drive us into wars for oil in the Middle East, and threaten the survival of our environment. Imagine if Kerry had announced a national goal of reducing fossil fuel dependence by 50 percent in twenty years, quoting John F. Kennedy, when he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Imagine …
The empty, negative campaign also ill serves President Bush, who may have to govern for another four years. To do so, he’ll need the cooperation of Democrats, given that the House and Senate will continue to be closely divided between the parties.
Bush has failed to use the campaign for setting up a second administration. Instead, his negative campaign only drives a wedge between the president and the opposition – as it did for his father George H. W. Bush after the corrosive campaign of 1988. If Bush wins, he’s likely to face a hellish four years.
Critics say that Americans get the politics they deserve. Not so. Today we get the sorry politics that a small band of political hucksters think we deserve. We still await candidates with the courage and wisdom to give us something more.
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Allan Lichtman - 11/6/2004
What about that drink?
Allan Lichtman - 10/31/2004
Joanna M. DeLaune - 10/31/2004
I just think he knows what he's doing - and there are reasons for him to have done it the way he did - but anyway. Bet you a drink Kerry wins, and we can argue about it more after the election. :)
Allan Lichtman - 10/30/2004
Unfortunately given what you correctly diagnose as the media's fixation of the horserace it is not nearly enough to give a speech and let it hang in the either. I guarantee you that not one voter in a thousand remembers that speech. Its critical to press the matter when you the attention of the people: during the convention or the debates, that's pretty much it.
But enough of all this. As you say, I've made my point and we'll see what happens. The fact that I think Kerry should have run a different kind of campaign should not discourage any of his supporters from doing what they can to get him elected.
Joanna M. DeLaune - 10/28/2004
And he used the exact same metaphor you just did!
"We need to go to the Moon right here on Earth by creating the jobs, building the high value-added jobs of the future, making clear that no young American in uniform ever ought to be held hostage to America’s dependence on oil in the Middle East."
Just because the media reports it as an empty, negative campaign, doesn't mean it IS one. Back in May or so, he made a big speech about energy policy. There was an article about it in the Washington Post. You'd think the article would report the content of the speech - but it didn't! Instead, it consisted of a dozen paragraphs of that back and forth crap from the campaign managers. There was more information in the photo caption about the actual content of the speech than there was in the article itself.
Kerry is playing ball on their court. You want him to build a new one. Well, you're partly right - that's a big part of what we need to do to fix our government, to give it back to the people - but right now the media is holding so many of the cards, we've got to get a few of those back (like as in a president who can ditch Michael Powell for someone who'll do his JOB) before we can do anything else.
See, if you think that Kerry lacks courage in any way whatsoever - that's got to be at least partly because you've bought into what the media's been saying about him. Certainly the Bush campaign (and their friends at Fox News et al) want us to believe John Kerry is weak and spineless and hasn't got the guts to stand up and lead. But anyone who's watched the video of his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; anyone who's heard the man speak in person, sees another story.
You've been bashing Kerry for not running a good enough or smart enough campaign for months now, and it's frustrated me to no end - because at this point, your complaining is a force counter to the efforts of people who've been devoting all their waking time to help him get elected.
But here's what I think will happen. I think it will be a moot point. Kerry will win - it will be close, but he will win - and then, REGARDLESS OF WHAT HE DOES, the people who worked so hard to get him into office, are going to continue the work they began, which is about so much more than John Kerry. It's about taking back America's political system for the people.
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