Books on Campaign 2000 show the vacuity of politics

The Argument

What the voters and the press saw and heard never revealed the candidates' real competencies.


November 04, 2001|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Special to the Sun

There never has been any secret about the failure of political campaigns to tell us very much about how the winning candidate will perform after taking office. That has never been more obvious than in the 2000 presidential election, which told us essentially nothing about which candidate might be the right one to deal with the crisis of Sept. 11 and the dangerous times that apparently lie ahead.

The campaign of 2000 was particularly mindless, embarrassingly so for many of us who covered it. One candidate didn't know Slovenia from Slovakia; the other couldn't settle on his own persona. Every time one or the other seemed to take a clear lead, the opinion polls found the voters changing their minds. One week they would say, in effect, we can't elect George W. Bush; he's not up to the job. The next they would say we can't face four years of that stiff Al Gore. It all ended, appropriately enough, in the equivalent of a scoreless tie, eventually broken in favor of Bush by an egregiously partisan Supreme Court.

There is, however, no correlation between the hollowness of a campaign and the amount of hardcover attention it receives after the fact. Thus, we have been treated to volume after volume about an event that might have been summarized by a few paragraphs and a couple of charts in USA Today. Nonetheless, the books tell us, even if inadvertently, at least something about how American politics today is shaped by money, opinion polls and consultants.

Several of the books are essentially a familiar genre -- reporters' diaries. "How I covered my first campaign and learned that politics can be a dirty business!" Dana Milbank of The Washington Post even argues in Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush: Notes From the 2000 Campaign Trail (Basic Books, 390 pages, $26) that negative politics is a good thing because it strengthens the survivors. It is an innovative argument, particularly when based on a campaign that was relatively tame. Milbank's definition of what constitutes "smashmouth" politics tells us he has never covered a campaign for sewer commissioner in Buffalo.

What is conspicuously missing from all the diaries, however, is any insight into either Gore or Bush that might have told us who would be the right man to be president of the United States on Sept. 11. This is largely a result of the determination of both campaigns last year to keep reporters at a distance and, above all, to avoid allowing candidates to do anything that might be spontaneous.

Except for John McCain's New Hampshire primary campaign, the politics of 2000 was controlled and contrived, bloodless and unrevealing. Gore didn't know who he was, the reporters couldn't find out and neither could the voters, which may explain how he lost an election that should have been a slam dunk -- and even failed to carry his home state of Tennessee.

The most significant change in American politics over the last two generations has been the rise in the influence of television and the amount of money raised by the political parties and candidates. Given essentially unlimited resources, presidential campaigns are empowered to hire phalanxes of experts who conduct so many opinion polls and focus groups that they are able to tailor the campaign message on any given day to appeal to, let's say, middle-aged red-haired women who own stock.

Given these resources, these mechanics then can buy the television time to deliver the message often enough so that no voter-viewer can escape it. So the last thing they want is a candidate who "goes off message" by lapsing into normal intercourse with other human beings, such as reporters. In this campaign, moreover, the consultants had two candidates willing to take their marching orders from the hired hands. And apparently they were right. After all, the candidates who marched to their own drummer, McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley, were driven to the sidelines after the early primaries.

The one "inside" account of a 2000 campaign was written not by a reporter but by a media consultant to the Bush campaign, Stuart Stevens. There is wit and glib charm in The Big Enchilada: Campaign Adventures with the Cockeyed Optimists from Texas Who Won the Biggest Prize in Politics (The Free Press, 298 pages, $25) but it is by no measure a serious study of the campaign or candidate. Stevens presents Bush as a politician without warts, and he glides past the episodes in which the Bush campaign took the low road against the challenge of McCain after the senator from Arizona won New Hampshire in a landslide. Rather than deal with those less-than-elevated strategic initiatives -- accusing McCain in South Carolina of being niggardly in supporting veterans, for example -- he recounts the staff badinage over the importance of a proper confetti drop. Stevens is, after all, a flack, even if a charming one.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.