The Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Yesterday, we discussed the fall of Clinton strategist Mark Penn as a good first step in undermining the culture of campaign consultants and the sad realization that there is unlikely to be a second such step. In this morning’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne calls attention to the other nefarious effect of the politics-as-marketing worldview that dominates contemporary consultant culture: paying attention only to the microtrends. Microtrends are those small issues and distinguishing characteristics that marketers try to use to galvanize a shift in opinion. Each of us does have certain quirks that make us more or less receptive to tailored messages. If you are selling ice cream, putting nuts in the ice cream will appeal to some people and not to those who are allergic to nuts. For some voters, the abortion issue, or how a candidate voted on the Iraq War, or the relative merits of health care proposals, may be so important, that no other issue matters. Consultants, especially pollsters, tout their ability to identify these trends and make a specific pitch to the slice of the electorate that can be motivated by a pitch discretely tailored to push that one button. Penn actually authored a book on the subject last year. Politics is not marketing. Voters may be selecting a set of policies when they elect one candidate over another, but they are selecting a person not a congeries of proposals. They want a president, not a policy paper. Some of the issues that will land on the next president’s desk are unforeseeable today, so we look for a candidate with the judgment and the ideological dispositions that can handle those yet unknown crises. The Democratic Party has been plagued since the 1970s with the kind of interest-group approach to politics that resulted in the stark fact that the last Democrat to win a majority of the electorate was Jimmy Carter in 1976. They have been unable to articulate a vision for the nation, content to over smaller visions for slices of the electorate. Democrats, in short, have been afraid of ideology. As Dionne notes, "grandiose" was "one of Penn’s preferred epithets. It is not difficult to locate the source of this inability to articulate a broad, national vision. In defending Roe, Democrats embraced the vile belief that "you can’t legislate morality." Of course, the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was nothing if not the legislative enactment of one moral vision over another and it should not surprise us, though it usually does, that it was the segregationists who invoked "privacy" in their battles to maintain Jim Crow. Nor should it surprise us that people who invoke Ronald Reagan as a model president are often hard-pressed to point to any particular policy successes he achieved (and there were some, most notably saving Social Security and vastly simplified the tax code). What we remember about Reagan was precisely his ability to give voice to our desire to be a great and good nation. He did not deliver the kind of policy laundry list that the Mark Penn’s of the world think hold the secret of electoral success and which characterize Clinton’s speeches. Yes, God is in the details. But, He is not only in the details. Mutatis mutandi, the same holds for politics. Michael Sean Winters
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