From Sasha Issenberg, Slate columnist and author of The Victory Lab
|Michael at a press conference, 1988|
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|
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.
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
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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.
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