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Jewish World Review
Oct. 4, 2006
/ 12 Tishrei, 5767
Trade Secrets of the Presidents: A dispassionate look at what's in store for White House wannabes Freak Show and all
John H. Fund
Inevitably, a lot of today's political handicapping aims at this year's election, closely contested and only a month away. The fate of nations seems to turn (for the moment) on Foley scandals and possible majority shifts in the House and Senate. But all such calculation is mere prelude to 2008. More than a few analysts have already begun parsing the presidential race, and in the next two years we are bound to hear from hundreds more, pronouncing from every conceivable point of view.
Why not turn, first, to a well-sourced, dispassionate look at the grim realities of running for president, perhaps even one that verges on cynicism? That's what Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News, and John Harris, the political editor for the Washington Post, have produced in "The Way to Win." They have written a book for people like them, people "obsessed with electoral strategy and maneuver, not to mention with the gaudy carnival of presidential elections." But the general reader can learn a lot too.
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The authors begin by noting that two competitive families, the Bushes and the Clintons, have come to dominate American politics in the past two decades and that each represents a distinct brand of politics. The Clintons, recognizing that the country has more conservatives than liberals, pursue a base-broadening strategy that tries to preserve liberal principles but employs conservative rhetoric. The Bushes, personified by their strategist, Karl Rove, favor a base-activation strategy that highlights the differences between the parties and attempts to keep the national news media and Washington elites nipping at the GOP's heels instead of lunging at its throat. After five years of stunning success, the media part of the Bush strategy looks to be a lost cause.
Whoever runs in 2008, according to Messrs. Halperin and Harris, will have to recognize that the Old Media of TV networks and prestige publications now suffer from "fading power and diminishing options." The New Media of cable news and the Internet are creating a "Freak Show," they say, stripping away the restraints and minor courtesies that used to govern campaigns and public debate. In a chapter called "How Matt Drudge Rules Our World," the authors declare that Mr. Drudge's simple Internet operation has made him "the Walter Cronkite of his era" because what he posts "instantly commands the attention and energies" of Old Media outlets. The authors disdain Mr. Drudge "salacious, reckless, superficial and unfair" but they concede that no 2008 candidate will succeed unless he understands the Drudge Report's "singular power" and the related power of sites such as (from the left) the Daily Kos.
Messrs. Halperin and Harris also concede that, whatever the excesses of the New Media, the Old Media are not exactly a pristine and objective force. By deciding which stories to cover and which to ignore, they play favorites, too. The authors believe that the emergence in 2004 of outside political groups funded by left-leaning billionaires such as George Soros was an undercovered story; it would have received saturation levels of scrutiny if the financiers hailed from the right. Similarly, the media dwell endlessly on GOP candidates who make direct appeals to religious groups, but in 2004 reporters yawned as John Kerry and John Edwards "routinely went into houses of worship and served notice that righteous voters would be for the Democrats."
And what about 2008? Hillary Clinton has studied the practices and principles of both the Bush team and those of her husband, gleaning what the authors call Trade Secrets. These include such Machiavellian precepts as "do opposition research on yourself" and "compile a mental enemies list of people who have crossed you. Never write it down. Make sure people are afraid to be added to the list." The Trade Secret for answering media questions is to give "an immaculate version of the exact same rehearsed response, every time."
By applying such Trade Secrets, the authors say, Ms. Clinton has been able to alter her image with some voters. She is no longer an "arrogant, power-hungry, corrupt, harsh, hypocritical liberal"; she is a "competent, thoughtful, hardworking, determined, principled role model." She recognizes that Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections in large part because they "lost control of their public image" and let the opposition set the terms of debate.
One of the most interesting points in "The Way to Win" is the calculated role that emotion can play amid so much policy wonkery and position-taking. The authors note that the Bush team has often managed to "get under the skin of [Bush's] opponents," eliciting anger and guaranteeing press coverage for instance, in 2004, by attacking military veteran John Kerry on national-security grounds. The outrage of Democrats only "produced an extended debate on terrorism and defense matters," a debate in which "the Democrats appeared emotional and agitated and the Republicans appeared calm and strong."
As for the GOP's presidential hopefuls, Messrs. Halperin and Harris observe that John McCain is running on a blend of Clinton and Bush strategies, flavored with his maverick style and aided by an Old Media that give him "lavishly favorable treatment." He may be the one candidate who can chart his own path to the White House by transcending the Freak Show. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and the other GOP luminaries will inevitably face tough Freak Show moments: George Allen has already found this out.
"The Way to Win" is mostly concerned with broad strategy and candidate analysis. But it adds a few newsy tidbits from the authors' sources. We get to read strategy emails from Karl Rove's computer that offer insights into how the GOP micro-targets voters. Meanwhile, memos from Al Gore aides make clear that he was warned about almost everything that would eventually derail his 2000 campaign, including his habit of lecturing voters in a know-it-all way. If Mr. Gore plans to be part of 2008's "gaudy carnival," as certain activist Democrats hope, he should read this book.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund
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