Strange Bedfellow

Learn Politics While You Drive

Can these Republican tapes teach you how to be a candidate?

If you want to be a Republican candidate–and who doesn’t, really?–you need “a core set of principles,” “a core set of beliefs,” “a core vision,” and “fire in the belly.” You must “be true to yourself,” “show that you care,” and treat every voter like “a precious soul.” And don’t forget to involve yourself with a high-profile cause before you announce your candidacy–it’ll really help your fund raising.

I know all this because I have spent the past week listening to Prepare To Win, a program of audiotapes and accompanying “workbooks” (I’m not kidding) from the Republican National Committee–four hours, 28 speakers (senators, House members, etc.), and advice on everything from fund raising to hiring staff to wooing the media. The RNC is distributing Prepare To Win to hundreds of potential 2000 candidates for Congress, state legislatures, county commissioner, and other offices. Would-be candidates are supposed to listen while they sleep, eat, or drive. (Here’s RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson urging Republicans to listen “over and over again” to the tapes. [ Excerpt.]) It was inevitable that self-improvement culture, which has infected every other aspect of American life, would eventually contaminate politics. At last it has.

Washington, where members of Congress are all well-coiffed, well-spoken, well-dressed, and well-prepped, makes it easy to forget that politicians are made, not born. For every Bill Clinton who springs from his mother’s womb wearing a blue suit and speaking in sound bites, there are scores of awkward, ambitious Rotarians needing guidance. In days of yore, aspiring pols learned their trade by sitting in the party clubhouse. But political education has become alarmingly sophisticated since the late ‘80s, when Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC began mailing tens of thousands of strategy tapes to Republican activists. Both parties now offer seminars training candidates how to run. But Prepare To Win marks the first time either party has tried to educate prospective candidates.

U nlike GOPAC’s tapes, which mix strategy with red-meat ideology, Prepare To Win is pure process. It mostly ignores Republican positions and concentrates on campaign mechanics. Speakers urge you to pay attention to filing deadlines, hire a lawyer, form a kitchen Cabinet of friends who can rein you in if the campaign unhinges you, court community leaders and seek their endorsement before you announce, choreograph your announcement to maximize media coverage, etc. It’s all sensible enough–especially the presentation of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine–but it’s thunderingly obvious. After a couple of hours, I began to ask myself: How dumb does the Republican Party think I am? Listen, for example, to New Mexico party Chairman John Dendahl’s leaden account of how to use humor in your campaign. (Excerpt.)

The workbooks exacerbate this condescending simple-mindedness. The 10 written questions that accompany each speech are of the sort I haven’t seen since sixth-grade reading comprehension: “How [according to Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington] do you become an Initiator, Innovator, and Leader?” “What did [Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida] learn as a girl scout leader?” Answer: Be prepared.

At heart, however, Prepare To Win is neither commonsensical nor condescending. It is deeply–so deeply that the speakers aren’t even aware of it–cynical. The superficial premise is that politics is about harnessing your beliefs, your honesty, and your caring heart for the common good. The political veterans dispensing advice genuinely seem to be preaching idealism. Speaker after speaker insists that your campaign must be founded on your “core principles” (beliefs, vision, whatever. My favorite workbook question is: “What are your core principles?” If you have to ask …). The tapes overflow with Polonius platitudes: “Be true to yourself”; “People don’t care what you know till they know that you care.” Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas repeatedly insists that you see people as “precious souls,” not as voters or contributors.

But it’s odd to be celebrating “precious souls” on a tape series designed to teach candidates exactly how to wring money from contributors and seduce skeptical voters. While saying that candidates should be true to themselves, the speakers spend the bulk of their time detailing how campaigns are artifice and how candidates must learn to manipulate voters, contributors, images, and reporters.

T his fundamental cynicism reveals itself in countless small ways. Here, for example, Georgia party Chairman Rusty Paul instructs how to make a candidacy announcement “political theater” with the candidate as the “main actor.” (Excerpt.)

The otherwise admirable Sen. Collins counsels listeners to embrace a cause before they become candidates, but not because the cause itself matters: The cause is a great way to build a contributor base. Listen to Rep. Dunn as she gives cheerful, happy-talk advice about how to use anecdotes to show voters that you care about people and not just policy. Women, she notes, “are much more responsive to a strong positive message than they are to attacks.” Then, in her final sentence, Dunn offers her real advice: “Leave those attacks for the advertising campaign.” (Excerpt.)

O verwhelmingly, I had the sense that my Prepare To Win instructors had no idea how cynical they sound. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the presentation of Sen. Kit Bond, a folksy Missourian. In this clip (Excerpt), Bond details his fund-raising philosophy. He proudly describes how, during his first congressional campaign, he refused a large contribution from someone who wanted him to change his position on an issue:

At that moment I made the decision that I am running this campaign. I am not going to be told by any contributor that I should take a stand they want me to solely because they would give me money for it. I told ‘em, “no thanks.” If they want to support me in the objectives I have outlined, that’s fine, but I don’t take positions or make votes in response to offers of contributions.

Bond says this as though recounting some remarkable achievement. In fact, what his grand principle amounts to is: no vote for cash. Sen. Bond does not take bribes! Prepare To Win is this passage writ large. Beneath its pious talk of visions and core beliefs, it is teaching a lesson about politics that is much shabbier and much more real than the one it pretends to teach.