Recently, there was a little-noticed gathering of graybeards in Oklahoma, designed to place the political world on notice that things have gotten too partisan. I say little-noticed because, while the collected firepower in the room was sufficient to garner some approving mentions in the press, especially from the hand-wringing contingent, the statement issued by this group appears to have come and gone without leaving much in the way of ripples. Good thing, too.
Long ago, I led an initiative of which the Oklahoma summit would no doubt approve. Armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation, I spent multiple election cycles trying to get opposing candidates to agree to simple ground rules for their campaigns and then stick to them. From my vantage point now, with no vested interest, I can say that in all honesty we had almost no success. Of course, we trumpeted battles won and progress made, and built an impressive book of press clipping — and we did so in sufficient volume to get investment from other foundations too.
Still, when all was said and done, the chief bit of learning from this lengthy effort is that candidates’ campaigns are not interested in “fighting fair” or working in “bipartisan” ways. They are interested in winning, so their candidate can then go on to govern.
It may be true that I just botched the job and someone else would have led the project to bipartisan glory. But I was not alone in my efforts. Across the nation in the late 1990s, well-meaning nonprofit organizations have tried to change the way election campaigns seemed to be going. For every small victory (a public financing system here, or an instant-runoff voting system there), there were far greater setbacks.
I’ve come to believe that, by and large, people are not interested in “bipartisan” approaches to “solutions” to our nation’s “problems.” They are interested in having the feeling that they are being led and led well, by someone who cares about their concerns and will honestly do their best. This was the political genius of Bill Clinton and of the team behind George W. Bush. They made 50% plus one feel that way.
By contrast, this is something that the technocrats who have spent long years in the halls of power do not seem to understand. Having made policy for so long, they apparently believe that ordinary Americans want solutions, when what they want is leadership. This was the failure of Senators Kerry and Dole, who in retrospect seemed to be applying for a job in government rather than fighting to lead a nation.
People who do a lot of thinking about democracy are worried sick about things these days. They see a hyperpartisan landscape that has choked government’s ability to act. They see an electoral system that favors style over substance. They see mean-spirited campaigns filled with veiled (and not-so-veiled) name-calling. They see a primary schedule run amok, with a yearlong presidential campaign already underway.
But I see a system that has responded well to the desires of the ordinary Americans who do not tune into C-SPAN and care little about the full text of White House press conferences. This is an America that mistrusts a government that “acts,” and instead bases any number of day-to-day decisions on an intuitive sense of “style” (I do not mean fashion), and that appreciates a good fight.
At the end of our early primary season, we will have two candidates poised to do their best to convince us that they, and not their opponent, will lead us best. And people will decide — some by reading the white papers, but more by listening to the repeated sound bites.
Those sound bites and bumper stickers and slogans say more than the concerned would care to admit.
Long ago, I stopped “attending films” and instead decided that I preferred to “go to the movies.” Around that time, I stopped basing my cinematic decisions on reviews but instead used movies’ own advertising to influence whether I would see a particular show. After all, a lot of thought goes into deciding just what aspect of a movie to highlight, in order to drive audiences. You can get a pretty good idea of whether you want to see something by reading its ad. My grand experiment has by and large worked very well. Even with the dogs (and there are a few), I am rarely surprised by what I get.
This is what the presidential candidates are trying to do. So far, they have done a pretty good job and the choices that I — along with the nation — face are clear. Each party has a small handful of competing directions and will choose from among them. Those two will battle it out.
I hope they really go at it.
Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.