Backstage Passes

What it takes to run for president in the age of media intimacy.

America's real-time political explainers are a game bunch. There's nothing that happens in the course of a campaign, a speech, a candidate's TV appearance, or any event inside or outside the Beltway that they can't quickly filter, analyze, and judge. People such as CNN's Jeff Greenfield, Fox's Brit Hume, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, PBS' team of Mark Shields and David Brooks, and an overflowing green room of others like them are, in fact, pretty good at high-pressure instant analysis. They know the players, they've heard all the stump speeches, and there's not much that happens that they haven't seen before. That's what makes them experts.

So it was novel to see them all dumbfounded. This year's Democratic primaries presented them with a spectacle that no one could remember witnessing before: the Genteel Debate.

Once the field of Democratic contenders was past Iowa and New Hampshire, most of the candidates ceased having much to say about each other, even in high-profile TV "debates" in delegate-rich states such as Michigan. True, vanity candidates Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton kept up a rhetorical drumbeat, and once in a while even the major contenders spoke an impolite word, especially when approaching the March 2 "Super Tuesday" contests. But only the early candidate forums featured any really sharp exchanges, with various hopefuls going after early front-runner Howard Dean. Understandably, Dean didn't much like being a punching bag, and he reportedly asked Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe to intervene. But since one purpose of the primary season is, supposedly, to test the contenders without actually destroying them, the friction seemed not only normal but also desirable.

Then it all but stopped. No sooner had the candidates assembled in South Carolina than they became more gracious than a porch full of Old Charleston belles. John Kerry, the new pack leader coming out of New Hampshire, was pronounced the "winner" of that state's late-January debate if only because -- and this was the phrase news junkies heard from every real-time analyst -- "no one laid a glove on him." That was true as far as it went. The more intriguing realization was that no one had tried.

"I don't know if these guys were all auditioning for vice president or what was going on," a perplexed Mark Shields told a PBS audience the next day. "But campaigns are about differences. There are differences in value, differences in experience, differences in vision, differences in character, personality, and temperament. And boy, you wouldn't have known it last night." Shields' debating partner, New York Times columnist David Brooks, agreed. "I thought at the debate they were going to endorse [John Kerry] at the end," he said. "It was so gentle." Brooks found the debate "a waste of time."

All Politics Is Personal

Was it? Shields, Brooks, and other high-profile refs of pro politics assumed the real value of such a debate is to draw attention to "difference" through rhetorical exchange. That obviously makes sense, and it is certainly true that such figures as Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark allowed their candidacies to expire without really exploiting any of the televised debates and making a determined last-ditch rhetorical stand.

On the other hand, debate isn't what it used to be. It's not all-day exchanges between the likes of Lincoln and Douglas; it's not even the soundbites about, say, "missile gaps" that marked the Kennedy-Nixon contest a century later. During the last decade, rhetorical exchange has been playing second fiddle to a different phenomenon entirely: the display of identities.

In the course of the 2000 presidential race, I argued that, due partly to the growth of ever more invasive and intimate media and partly to the decline of a foreign military threat, presidential candidates were under continuing pressure to change their whole concept of campaigning. Since then the military dimension of the presidency obviously has reasserted itself, but the role of invasive media -- which capture the once-private "backstage" activities of politicians and turn them into yet another public, front-stage forum -- has only grown.

In "The New Presidential Identity" (November 2000), I wrote that geopolitical and technological changes "have resulted in a succession of quiet, interlocking political reactions. American leadership models, once limited to a handful of rhetorical types, are expanding to include different character roles; successful public life is becoming ever more self-revelatory; the relationship between citizens and their elected officials is becoming increasingly direct and personal; the traditional gatekeeper political press is losing its power and significance." This emerging political style, I claimed, "sounds less like politics as it has been practiced for decades than it does like the dynamics of popular culture."

The unfolding of the Democratic primary process appears to support the emerging "cultural" model of electioneering. That is, the political importance of personal exposure has continued to increase even as the candidates' ability to tell a compelling story about themselves has become an irreducible necessity. Indeed, the growing importance of these factors points toward a common point on the horizon: American politics may be undergoing a process that at least one observer has termed "feminization."

During the primary season, candidates with a good story to tell did much better than candidates without one. Conversely, candidates who sought to limit their personal exposure paid for it. In the meantime, Democratic voters simply ignored gatekeeper judgments about who was leading and who was lagging, continually reshaping the race from one primary to the next. Three candidacies stand out as illustrations of the cultural political process: those of Howard Dean, John Edwards, and John Kerry.

Dean's Disintegration

Vermont's former governor is in some ways the most interesting, if only because his effort was the most resounding flop. Dean's campaign pioneered the use of the Internet to build an organization and raise funds, and it appeared to be so successful at this innovative strategy that some observers thought that he would, in effect, hijack the Democratic Party "brand." (Maybe the Democratic National Committee thought so too. The party apparatus seemed hostile to Dean's run, unconcerned with attacks on him, and anxious for him to quit the race.) Yet despite the fact that the gatekeeper press had anointed him the front-runner, Dean failed to win a single primary other than Vermont's in March, long after his candidacy was finished.

He based his campaign almost entirely on policy issues, especially his opposition to the Iraq war, and he spoke frequently of bringing fundamental change to Washington power politics. This strategy appealed to a core group of issue-oriented Dean enthusiasts, but it failed with everyone else.

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