Sweating the Small Stuff

People complain about our frivolous politics. But the greater danger may be our timid campaigns.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a grassroots training and rally event at Concord High School, March 14, 2015, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Will frivolity or timidity destroy politics faster? We all know about the frivolity problem. Candidates and the media are distracted by one shiny non-news event after another until Election Day. No one running for office has to give a serious answer, and voters never get a chance to see how candidates fare under a barrage of serious questions.

Timidity is a slightly less obvious problem. It’s the condition where candidates assume a risk-free crouch and parties insist on maximum orthodoxy early in the cycle. By the time voters are paying attention, candidates and their staff are in a state of roar or ignore: They issue loud hyperbole about the opposition party (which allows for the appearance of strong position-taking, but is essentially a free shot) but ignore any issues that might be challenging enough to get them in trouble. At most, they will utter short, safe peeps encased in bromides. 

Timidity is enforced by exorcising people from politics who stray. We saw this recently when Liz Mair came and went through Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign about as fast as it takes a soufflé to rise. Mair had signed on to advise Walker on his digital strategy. It was then revealed that she had said some unflattering things about Iowans, and that was it for her. She resigned after one day on the campaign.

Her comments were pretty mild—particularly by the standards of politics. Last January, on the eve of Rep. Steve King’s Iowa event that attracted a slew of Republican presidential contenders, she wrote on Twitter: “In other news, I see Iowa is once again embarrassing itself, and the GOP, this morning. Thanks, guys.” She was referring to the race to embrace King who is an ardent opponent of immigration reform. In a second tweet, Mair wrote, “The sooner we remove Iowa’s front-running status, the better off American politics and policy will be.” (After this most recent episode, Mair explained herself in a voluminous series of tweets.)

Mair also criticized the government assistance that supports the production of ethanol that most Republicans are OK with, but which represents the kind of market interference conservatives usually don’t like at all. “Morons across America are astounded to learn that people from *IOWA* grow up rather government-dependent. #agsubsidies #ethanol #brainless,” she wrote. This tweet was obviously not calling Iowans “morons,” but umbrage was taken anyway, and Mair had to resign.

It’s understandable when people are tossed from campaigns for saying sexist or racist things, but this wasn’t in that category. Mair wasn’t working for Walker at the time, but the Wisconsin governor wants to do well in Iowa, and he’s not going to risk having someone on his staff who insults Iowans. It also could be that Mair was pushed out because she supports same-sex marriage, and Walker didn’t want to upset a constituency that doesn’t. 

Political campaigns are growing more timid, and ideological purists are growing more precise with their purity tests. At the same time, social media is making us more reckless and honest in public. These two things cannot continue. Or they can continue, and campaigns will simply make the screen through which any comment or staffer must pass full of the tiniest holes. Unless you were fed on a constant diet of pablum from birth and promise to dispense the same, you won’t make the cut.

This is a problem. No one who is any good at politics or even very interesting can get through the screen. Politics and public debate requires passion and risk-taking. It’s the way you win, and it’s the way you reach solutions that might actually change people’s lives for the better. Also, creating a cocoon of the most boring atrophies the skills required to talk to people who don’t agree with you 100 percent of the time. That can only lead to greater polarization. No one can say anything peppery about anything, or they’ll never get a job. 

Walker is proving to be a very careful campaigner, which is fascinating since he has been such a bold governor. This is also the great test of the Clinton campaign, which in the past has been risk-free in everything but its IT strategy. Clinton’s advisers are promising something different this time.

Not every candidate is padding timid little feet down the campaign trail. Gov. Bush is the boldest of the plausible candidates, since he’s making a campaign out of challenging party orthodoxy. Sen. Rand Paul also gets points for taking risks.

Politics is supposed to be about building big tents. Right now both parties are going through debates about who belongs in the tent. Each has a faction that wants to eliminate heretics. This is not a sustainable strategy when you’re engaged in a contest where the team that can build a majority wins. But it’s really not a sustainable strategy if you only build that team out of quiet drones.