Popkin’s Surprising Lessons from the White House campaign Trail
I guess this book will initially appeal only to politics junkies and West Wing devotees (which is probably why I read it). But I suspect many others may well enjoy it despite that – it’s pacey, readable and insightful. And actually, surprisingly relevant to all kinds of other walks of life.
A politics professor and former Democrat party campaign consultant (from McGovern through to Gore), Samuel Popkin has sought to expose the arcane and often dark arts of US presidential campaigning in The Candidate. The results are fascinating. Here are just a few windows into this bizarre parallel world.
In analysing historical campaigns, Popkin makes the seemingly obvious, but usually overlooked, point:
Candidates would be better off by examining losers. General William Westmoreland, commander of the American forces in Vietnam, explained to reporters why he had not read any books written by French generals after their devastating defeat there. “They lost”, he explained. And so did we. (p5)
This is in part because of what he articulates (by appropriating the great Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant description of military campaigns) as ‘the unfolding of miscalculations.’ (p6) Quite how those miscalculations have unfolded is instructive – which is why he focuses on the failed campaigns of apparently ‘inevitable’ candidates: George H. W. Bush in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. The reasons for each failure were complex and mixed but all are revealing.
You have to be pretty sure of yourself to want to preside over anyone else, let alone the most powerful nation on earth. Some are instinctively distrustful of all politicians precisely because of this. But here’s the paradox:
The central existential problem for a presidential candidate is: How does someone with enough ego and audacity to run deal with their personal weaknesses? Stuart Stevens was a media specialist for George W. Bush in 2004 and 2008, and directed strategy for Mitt Romney during the 2012 primaries. One of his favourite axioms for candidates is “If you don’t enter this process humbly, you will leave it humbly.” But how can anyone asserting they are the most qualified to lead the nation acknowledge that someone else might know more about some parts of the job than they do? (p52)
This is perhaps another way of putting Enoch Powell’s famous dictum that “all political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure”. (He was in fact describing the career of Joseph Chamberlain, but, as things turned out, he could equally have been referring to his own career.)
And then if they do reach the Oval Office, it is inevitable for them to become insulated; the bubble of privilege, of acolytes, of being the centre of a royal court. (Remember how after ten years in No 10, Tony Blair suddenly found himself in the real world and unable to work his mobile phone?) How can it not? But it’s worse than that. For all too often the ego plays tricks with the interpreting of events, especially of successes.
Once a new president is in power, he forgets that voters who preferred him to the alternative did not necessarily comprehend or support all of his intentions. He believes his victory was due to his vision and goals; he underestimates how much the loss of credibility for the previous president helped him and overestimates how much his own party supports him. (p145)
Of course, as someone once said (attributable to all kinds of wits) if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. Even one of the founding fathers was onto this.
Ben Franklin considered humility an important virtue but confessed he could not “boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” He learned to avoid acting as if his mind were made up by avoiding words like “certainly”, “undoubtedly” and “positively”, and instead used words that suggested he was interested in hearing what the other person had to say, like “it appears to me,” or “if I am not mistaken”, or “I imagine.” (p269)
Which leads onto the next point…
It is stupidly easy to expose any but the most steadfast politicians for flip-floppery. It’s much harder for candidates themselves to spot it.
Throughout the book, Popkin elaborates on what he distills into 3 essential types of campaign: Challengers, Incumbents, and Successors. What happens all too often is that candidates fail to adjust to different types if they have been successful at one.
Early in the second debate-preparation session, the subject turned to Reagan’s simplistic energy policy. “Listening to Gov. Reagan,” Carter said, “I was reminded of myself four years ago. I’ve been in the White House now for almost four years as president, and I’ve learned to appreciate more and more a statement that H. L. Mencken made, that ‘for every difficult question there’s a simple answer: easy, glib and wrong.’”
No one in the room saw the deep irony of what he was saying. When Carter compared Reagan’s simple and naive claims to his own statements in 1976, he was criticizing Reagan for using rhetoric that Carter had used successfully when he was a challenger. (p137)
Or take this hilarious assessment of Gore 2000, running as a successor, but often campaigning as a challenger:
Gore emphasized that he was fighting for “the people against the powerful”, but never explained why a governor like Bush, someone outside the corrosive environment of Washington, was on the other side. The columnist Michael Kinsley paraphrased Gore’s message as “You’ve never had it so good, and I’m mad as hell about it. Keep the team that brought you this situation, and I’ll fight to take back power from the evil forces that have imposed it on you.” Trying to brag about the economy while attacking economic royalism was not impossible, Kinsley added, “But why juggle three tennis balls and keep a saucer spinning on a stick at the same time if you don’t have to?” (p236)
In other words, if you don’t know what you are seeking to do, it’s inevitable that you won’t succeed at doing it.
But if campaigning is all about presenting one’s best side and downplaying Achilles’ heels, it’s clear why so many in public life appear to lack substance or integrity. For all too often they DO lack substance or integrity. People-pleasing must be the primary means if power is the only end. So I was glad to see that there are those on the inside who actually do seek to test that. For without bottom lines, there can never be substance.
After working with five Republican presidents, Stu Spencer concluded it was inconceivable that anyone could be president who didn’t know what he stood for well enough to know when he was about to compromise himself. He worked with potential candidates to see whether they knew where they stood:
You test them. You take an issue and you ask them, “Where do you stand on this issue?” Once they tell you, you start playing devil’s advocate. You start working them over, coming at them. … If you can move them… you know that they don’t have a very hard-core value system. …. [You know they have values if] at the end of they day they still smile and say, ‘All well and good, but this is where I stand.” (p238)
Finally, it’s not just convictions that get tested. It’s the commitment to the process itself
Mike Piazza was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. A few years after he retired, a reporter asked the twelve-time all-star if he missed playing major league baseball. “You never lose the desire to play,” Piazza told her, “but you lose the desire to prepare to play.”
George H.W. Bush still wanted to be president in 1992… [he] had lost the hunger and drive to prepare. He believed he was entitled to remain president on the basis of his international efforts. (p188)
Piazza’s line is a good one – and is a salutary warning for all. Just replace the verb ‘play’ with whatever is most relevant (e.g. perform on stage, cook a meal, preach a sermon, pastor a church, etc etc), and there’s the rub. Of course, things have gone seriously awry if we’re our preparations are honed for ruthless competition in ministry spheres. But how many of us just coast on past apparent successes, assuming things that were will always be? Don’t lose the desire to prepare to play.
All in all, this is a fascinating read – definitely worth the time and effort, not just for those gripped by the process of politics.