Sunday, September 2, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Ninety One to One Hundred Five

From Sasha Issenberg, Slate columnist and author of The Victory Lab

Michael at a press conference, 1988
Has What It Takes ever been fully appreciated as a book about one of the great folkways of campaign journalism, the dance between newspapers and hometown candidates?  As a former political reporter for The Boston Globe, I was was taken by the great account of the paper’s protective stance towards Dukakis.  That Hub-centric parochialism seems wildly out of date given the far less friendly relationships it’s had in intervening cycles with John Kerry and Mitt Romney. (I recall asking colleagues and old-timers what the Globe’s rapport was like with Paul Tsongas in 1992, and no one had an feel for it.)

What we see later in the section from two other ’88 candidates is more like it.  There’s Gephardt wishing that the St. Louis paper would just ignore him: “Could we—just once!—get one decent story from the Post-Dispatch ... so we could raise a little money?”  And Dole getting dogged by The Hutchinson News, which — as we learn in an aside that tells us more about the Senate Minority Leader than the little daily — is his “old nemesis—the Prairie Pravda,’ he called it.”

But Richard Ben Cramer takes us quickly from the umbrage that the Globe felt upon Hart’s reentry into the campaign to the “spark of life” Dukakis felt on that occasion.  With Hart available, Dukakis found self-definition:

With Hart in the race, Michael Dukakis could be obviously cleaner, more moral, more rational, more disciplined: here was a foil for the Dukakis morality play.

Gary Hart, back in New Hampshire
This makes me think how much What It Takes is a book about primary campaigns — in fact, a novel approach to political narrative that could only have come out of a primary campaign.  Journalists and pundits tend to underestimate how fundamentally different primaries are from general elections: calling it “an intra-squad game,” as some professionals do, seems to overlook the extent that the rules of the game are entirely different.  The big rule of American politics is party.  Political parties offer our structure: intellectual and ideological coherence, an available pool of manpower and an electioneering apparatus, and and an organizing principle for people who require shortcuts to navigate a complex mix of policy and leadership options.

People may say they vote the man, not the party, but most research we have says they’re wrong. In a presidential general election, most voters’ decisions are effectively predetermined.  Sometimes it is direct, as is the case among straight-ticket voters, and sometimes an indirect decision-making maze, but it almost involves the candidates’ parties.  We are basically choosing not between two men, but between a Democrat and a Republican, with all other information — about their records, biographies, agendas, ability to have a beer with — surfacing only to complicate the choice.  (A small fraction of the electorate, far smaller than one would believe from cable news, are actual independents with no partisan predisposition.)  From the moment two candidates each win a nomination, the terms of their battle is more or less set.
In Iowa '88, Dick never got a good pack. (Here in 1994)

But primaries have no such readymade architecture. Public opinion can be unusually volatile because there isn’t much cost to a voter of changing her mind from one Democrat to another.  The big institutional contrast we rely on for guidance doesn’t exist.  The lazy voter can’t shortcut his or her way to a choice among three Republicans or five Democrats, and the seriously civic-minded will probably struggle to find many serious issues where the candidates disagree.  Without parties to hem them in, candidates in presidential primaries have to do the difficult work of self-definition — magnifying policy, character and biographical distinctions to represent broad differences of direction — and usually in a multi-sided field that turns self-mythology into a game-theoretical conundrum.

And so we have Dukakis, newly energized because his most formidable rival has reentered the race. Only in a multi-candidate primary field could a candidate feel to script “a foil in [his] morality play”; it is hard to imagine Dukakis thinking of “cleaner, more moral, more rational, more disciplined” as meaningful contrasts in an ideologically polarized general election.

There’s a reason What It Takes basically ends by the time we get to the conventions. Having the good fortune to report What It Takes in an election year with two wide open nominating contests not only gave Cramer more than a dozen protagonists from among whom to choose.  It is in primaries that candidates have a strategic imperative to indulge what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”  Without that self-regard — and the reflection and self-examination it demands — Cramer would have had a much harder time entering the psyches of the people who want to be president.

The Victory Lab

Richard Ben Cramer on The Victory Lab

"Sasha Issenberg is our most acute observer of the modern political campaign. With vivid portraiture and crystal-clear prose, he takes us beyond the charge-and-counter-charge, the rallies and stump speeches, to show us the hidden persuaders."

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This is perhaps the most uneventful week of the reading, simply for very little happening that moves the story forward. Dole and Bush are duking it out in the early stages of the primaries, Dukakis is energized by the returned, resurgent Gary Hart, and Dick Gephardt is pouring it all into Iowa, which he then wins.

The section is essentially a critique of the reporters, consultants and shapers of conventional wisdom looking for the patterns -- real or imagined -- that make or break the candidate. The most indelible image is that of Bob Shrum in his Italian scarf and shoes, freezing in an Iowa barn full of ticked off farmers, too cold to think. There's also the examples Sasha mentioned above, as well as Gephardt's realization that he would never get the press to like him, and Bush getting sandbagged by his tennis pal, Dan Rather -- not to mention what Broder was writing about Hart. The press' animosity was the price of admission. All of these men paid.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.


  1. Loved that H.W. thought Dan Rather would never give him a hard time because they'd known each other for twenty years, back when Dan was a local newsman, that they played tennis together, that "Dan's a friend."

  2. There's also the Malcolm Gladwell-style hours of practice you need to be any good at the presidential messaging game. Gary Hart, perhaps the smartest guy with the most compelling ideas out there, gets back in the game at the Iowa debate and is incapable of getting his answers out in time. He just gets hammered. Proof that the good ideas alone are not going to cut it. In a way -- and Cramer might not have even realized this -- this is the unspoken vindication for guys like Shrum and their neat packaged you-but-not-you-but-you sound bites.