Selected Skirmishes: Peep Shows


Psst. I'm going to have to whisper this: I like to watch politics. That's why every four years, starting in 1980, I've secured a press pass and waddled off to both major-party conventions (missing only the 1988 GOP Con).

Big-time presidential politics in America encompasses the gravity of human survival with the ethics of professional wrestling; it's twisted just thinking about it. The national conventions allow one to press one's nose right up against the glass. It's steamy in there. And I love it.

Like any subculture, the political world has its own logic and language. Each press release, policy statement, or candidate's speech is communicated in a PoliticoSpeak that serves to push five basic ideas: 1) My motives are pure; 2) I care about you; 3) my record is pristine yet effective; 4) my program is no-nonsense yet visionary; 5) my opponent is a slimeball. Squeezing events tangential to the real world into cute sound-bite formats and, in turn, getting those pithy messages into voters' brainwaves is the object of any democratic campaign in the Free World.

This political contest is scored like Olympic boxing: Points are awarded for the number of blows; the underlying importance of each blow (unless it is a knockout punch ending the bout) is irrelevant. As is the truth. Take, for instance, the Bill Clinton attack on George Bush for claiming Texas—rather than Maine or Washington, D.C.—as his home state: Clinton branded Bush a Tax Dodger. This seems to score PoliticoSpeak No. 5 rather nicely.

The GOP response was: No way. Bush has lived and worked in his beloved adopted state of Texas for 30 years, and he feels a supreme sense of loyalty in calling it home. He would never abandon it. Never. And besides, the Bushes pay a wad in taxes—and have never dodged their patriotic duties.

This is the genre of fisticuffs that forms the heart of presidential campaigns. Punch! Counterpunch! Pow! Spin! Pow! Spin! The truth? No one can doubt that the reasons George Bush claims Texas as his home state are solely political: If the electoral-vote totals of Maine and Texas were reversed, the president's residential P.O. box would gladly sport the zip code of Kennebunkport. To think that saving a couple of thousand dollars is more important to the Bush household than being president of the United States is absurd. Neither campaign seriously believes that.

What is interesting is that while Clinton's sound-bite attack could not tell the truth—"Tax Dodger!" motivates voters in a way that "Vote Seeker!" does not—neither could Bush's nine-second response: Candidates must care about you, not about their chances.

Every campaign understands the PoliticoSpeak game of reducing metaphysics to bumper stickers, but some campaigns are mystified by the scoring. These are the most fun to watch. I remember viewing the Democrats in Atlanta in 1988, abuzz with the electricity of victory. Their closing-night party excited more hormones than a Rob Lowe video. They blasted off to sound-bite their way to the White House.

Well, the GOP was waiting with some brain skimmers of its own. When the Willie Horton ad finally appeared (it had been broadcast since June that the furloughed life prisoner would be the focus of a Bush attack on the Liberal Governor of the Liberal State of Massachusetts), the Cambridge intellectuals managing the Democratic standard-bearer swung into action. They called a major press conference and denounced the ad (which did not show Horton or otherwise describe his background) as racist on the grounds that the rapist-murderer was of African ancestry.

Let us consider the dueling simplifications. The Republican campaign, in an effort to brand Dukakis as an out-of-touch elitist more interested in liberal academic theories than the problems of everyday Americans, cast its opponent as one who lets convicted murderers out of jail to rape and assault innocent civilians. The Democratic response was to belittle the Republicans for making such a big deal about one specific act of terror, which in any event carried racial overtones. Dukakis's folks Harvard twits? Gotcha!

For all the media hand wringing over sound-bite politics, the reduction of huge policy issues to succinct (trivial?) morality blips is blithely engaged in by the journalists, commentators, columnists, talk-show hosts, and policy wonks who dot the media dial. Whenever I see a story in the mainstream news media about an issue I really know the details on—say, cable-TV reregulation—I find even the best daily journalism appallingly simplistic. The stories virtually ignore the key consumer issues, instead presenting a two-dimensional conflict between (Naderite) proregulation and (Reaganite) antiregulation forces. I'd go on to explain, but even you would probably prefer the 15-second version.

While photo ops and sound bites seem to have offended today's esteemed media functionaries, ribbon cuttings and gala political pageants have been with us since the pyramids. Slicing complex issues into edible bite-sized morsels is the necessary task of political discourse; butchering that simplification process for partisan advantage is the busy work of politics.

I don't really know if it's the violence of the meat grinder, the public display of something nasty, or just the thrill of the gore going splat! that makes watching this stuff so titillating. But here I am: off to the Astrodome. Damned if I didn't forget my raincoat.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.