The Book Club

Politicians Either Have Character or They Don’t

Dear Markos,

It’s not hard to get me to join you in beating up on the media. And Lord knows I miss Al Gore and Howard Dean as much as anyone. Every night I light a candle in hopes that the Democratic Party will come to its senses and run them as a ticket in 2008. I’m thinking “Wild and Crazy: Together Again” would be the perfect slogan.

But we should test it first.

There’s no doubt that there are a lot of venal and opportunistic, not to mention just plain dumb, consultants out there in the political world giving bad advice. But there’s one essential flaw in the “blame the consultants” approach you and Joe Klein take: No candidate has to take their advice.

If John Kerry allowed his position on Iraq to be crafted by consultants, then there’s no one to blame but John Kerry. The notion that any candidate would turn over as critical a decision as whether to support a war to a bunch of hired political consultants is so damning that, were it true, it should instantly disqualify him or her. Consultants are called consultants because that’s what they do: consult. They’re in the business of giving advice, like the myriad domestic- and foreign-policy advisers that every presidential campaign assembles. Just as it would be a terrible sign of weakness if a candidate (or elected official) turned over, say, an important foreign-policy decision to some strong-willed expert from one of the think tanks, whether on the left or the right, so it is a sign of critical management and character flaws for any candidate to allow his consultants to dominate his thinking.

A candidate’s ability to manage his consultants (and his entire campaign) is a telling indicator of how he would go about the business of governing. The skill set is quite similar. Elected officials have to assimilate information from various sources, make decisions, then execute their plans while adjusting to change—often under high stress. And that’s a perfect description of a candidate’s role in a modern campaign. If a candidate needs consultants to remind him of his deeply held convictions, that’s a good sign he will, and should, lose the election.

It’s ironic that Klein holds up Robert Kennedy as the last, best hope of the unhandled candidate. The Kennedys, being smart, aggressive sorts, actually ushered in the era of consultants, spin doctors, and image manipulators. The entire mythos of the Kennedy clan—from the photo ops with John-John and Caroline to the ghostwritten Profiles in Courage—was carefully cultivated and marketed. No one was better at seducing and co-opting the press, using social favors, leaks, and special access—still the favored tools of the spin trade today. The Kennedys enlisted a young documentary filmmaker, Charles Guggenheim, to make ads, and created a new genre of political advertising: an intimate view of the candidate, walking on the beach, coat slung over his shoulder. The opening montage of the West Wing is basically a riff on Jacques Lowe’s famous photographs of Kennedy in the White House. These stage-managed images have become the modern icons of the very office of the presidency.

But relying on consultants didn’t make either JFK or RFK the tools of powerful puppet-masters. Sure, they used pros to run campaigns, write speeches, make powerful ads, but they still seem to have had some core beliefs, some fundamental passion and soul. My experience has been that those are exactly the qualities consultants can neither give to nor take away from a candidate. You either have character and heart or you don’t.

Klein writes that, “The Kerry advisers … told the senator to stay away from Abu Ghraib, even though it would have been his most natural impulse as a human being and veteran … to protest this outrage.” What Klein is really saying is the Kerry cared more about getting elected than he did about his own values. If that’s true, it’s one more reason to celebrate Kerry’s defeat. But either way, the problem here isn’t Bob Shrum; it’s Kerry’s own confusion and lack of conviction.

It seems that you and many other Dean supporters were drawn to my former governor because you sensed he had exactly those qualities: true passion and core beliefs. And Klein understands and acknowledges this appeal. He describes Dean’s breakout appearance at the DNC in 2003 as the “finest moment in [his] campaign,” and he praises him for speaking from the heart when he challenged the Democrats with four questions, all beginning with “What I want to know is why …”: why the party was supporting the Iraq war, tax cuts, and “No Child Left Behind,” while opposing universal health coverage. It was a passionate, bold—and yes, angry—seizure of the left flank in the Democratic primary. That all worked great until … it didn’t work. Dean was the voice of the left, he was angry. And guess what? Democratic Party voters and left-leaning journalists got it. They understood Dean perfectly, and they didn’t want him to be president.

Those of us who passionately support President Bush—and I know this may come as a shock—are drawn to the man for reasons that have nothing to do with consultants or focus-grouped campaign messages. We perceive in him a fundamental set of core values and a humanity that we find powerful and refreshing. Klein, like most of his colleagues in the media, is totally tone-deaf to this appeal—much as Republicans never understood the strengths of Bill Clinton. Klein writes,  “The presidency of George W. Bush represented the final, squalid perfection of the Permanent Campaign … an odd mix of ideology and cynicism.”

I’d suggest that Klein has to believe that it was this mythical “Permanent Campaign” that won the last two elections because he can’t fathom the concept of millions of Americans actively choosing President Bush if they hadn’t been tricked by some clever campaign. Which is, of course, silly, condescending, and wrong. Ultimately, the last two elections didn’t come down to Bush’s consultants vs. Gore’s and Kerry’s, but rather the intrinsic qualities of the candidates. That’s why President Bush won.

So, let me ask you this, Markos: Do you think if Howard Dean had been the nominee of the Democratic Party he would have defeated President Bush? And looking ahead to 2008, do you think that Klein’s narrative of a consultant-corrupted election will repeat itself in the Democratic Party, or is it likely that a candidate will emerge who knows how to control the hired help?