« Care Not Cash | Main | Redesign »

May 04, 2005

Paging John Edwards

Back when Matt Singer and I blogged on Not Geniuses, he wrote a helluva post on hate crimes that spurred Dave Neiwert to blast out an even more excellent essay on the subject. At the time, Matt said that certain posts exist merely so some smarter guy will pick up the ball and knock it into orbit. John Rogers, responding to a post of mine from a few days back, does just that with "Learn to Say 'Ain't'". Head over there and watch it fly.

As background here, John was a stand-up comedian for awhile and his post distills lessons learned in bars and clubs into teachings applicable to presidential politics. But it also brings up a pretty basic flaw in our political system: The path to the presidency is best walked by a showman. Reagan, Clinton, JFK, FDR -- popular presidents are those able to make their media persona instantly appealing and trick a nation into investing itself in their success. But we try not to pick actors to run for president -- at least not too often. We still believe, naively, that experience, qualifications, and an array of other, more substantive factors should figure into the choice. And we lose because of it. A sitcom starring Michael Dukakis would reduce grown men to tears, a stand-up routine by John Kerry would kill plants, and, speaking of plants, Al Gore, at least when campaigning, was actually able to make folks call him "wood". And you know what? I don't much care if that's simple media spin. I've watched these guys lecture, harangue, pontificate and persuade until tears ran down my cheeks. I've dug through libraries for old footage and crawled C-Span for archived feeds. Every one of these candidates was just as boring as the media said. If you want, go ahead and blast our superficial punditocracy for pointing that out, but killing the messenger doesn't make the message-writer any better in front of a crowd.

The question generally asked is why, after all our losses, we don't nominate leaders more skilled in speaking to a camera. The better question, and one I can't answer, is how we ended up with a system that prizes the skills learned in stand-up above those learned in government. John's post is fantastic, as much a must-read as I've seen, but the dynamic it's addressing is nasty and wrong-headed. Our system is poorly prepared to pick a president and accounting for its failures will force us to nominate poorly-prepared candidates, as executive experience and legislative success rarely take up residence with charisma. But account for it we must because the alternative, watching a few more stilted communicators sputter out at the polls, is far worse.

Update: Read this one of John's posts as well. Damn that guy's on fire.

Update 2: Neil's got some thoughts as well, plus a perspective from an unusually frank red stater.

May 4, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Paging John Edwards:

» The view from a Go Big Red state from The Ethical Werewolf
I think John and Ezra have it right, and I want to repost some interesting stuff that Nebraskan ex-roommate Justin Tiehen wrote shortly after the November elections: [Read More]

Tracked on May 4, 2005 11:15:24 PM


EXCELLENT point. That's why, personally, I prefer parliamentary structure. You identify more with the Party, less with the leader -- although the leader can immensely help or hurt you. The day to day power struggle to rise to leadership of the party tends to produce the guy who's best blend of wonk, diplomat, and showman rather than our "all for nothing" sprint.

Posted by: jonrog1 | May 4, 2005 5:55:43 PM

I've been complaining about this for years - it boils down to the fact that the people best suited to run for President (or really, any elected office), are not often the same people who are best suited to be President. And it's on both sides of the aisle. Even look at Bloomberg here in NYC - Yeah, he's sort of a Democrat in Republican's clothing, but I (hardcore dem) think he's done a great job as mayor (other than the West Side Stadium thing), facing the toughest fiscal crisis in the city since the 1970s. But people just don't like him. Why? He's got no discernable personality - He's not a character a la Ed Koch, he's not ruthless a la Giuliani.

Posted by: sam | May 4, 2005 5:56:40 PM

I think you have the wrong era, Ezra. I believe that post came back in the old Klein/Singer days.

Posted by: Matt Singer | May 4, 2005 6:53:31 PM

Singer sounds nostalgic. Thanks for the link.

Posted by: opit | May 4, 2005 7:18:39 PM

That's me, crying in the corner.

Ezra, Joe -- why did you leave me!?!?!?!?!?

Posted by: Matt Singer | May 4, 2005 7:31:35 PM

The better question, and one I can't answer, is how we ended up with a system that prizes the skills learned in stand-up above those learned in government.

Well, that's not exactly a new problem, is it?

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2 ( http://tinyurl.com/cfy5f ) comes to mind...

Posted by: Rieux | May 4, 2005 7:54:05 PM

I don't know what the root of it all is, probably in the conservative love of both business and hierarchy, but it seems to me that the GOP has at every respective juncture of politics, from money to message to boots on the ground to campaign strategy, people who are more effective at what they do than their rivals across the isle. It's not a matter of playing to win, it's a matter of winning. Karl Rove is but the most conspicuous example of this, a man who sits at the nexus of it all and 1) actually has power, unlike all us ameteur strategists and 2) does more with that power than anyone representing the Democrats.

Who is the vanguard of our political class? Well, no one. I know it's a constant lament, but there's no excuse for people even knowing who Bob Shrum is. Does anyone know who Scott Reed is? Hell no, because he got shitcanned when his campaign lost in 1996.

And because the GOP has been more successful than the Democrats, it becomes so much easier for the right to accept that hierarchy, and to serve it activly. Democrats don't have that oppertunity. We spend more time bashing our own because we spend far less time swapping in and out the people and parts of the machine. If there's no hierarchy you have to yell louder, and as we've seen with the rise of sites like Kos, only when the tops of the decible meters are being reached are things starting to slowly change.

It's a cycle that's hard to break. And in reading the blogs, I still see it under remarked upon that we have to be better than the GOP. Better in total, better in the majority of the sum of the parts. That's really the only standard we have to measure ourselves against. Kerry may have done better than Gore in Ohio, but to what end? To no end. The good news with this is that, like the old "you don't have to outrun the bear" saying, we don't have to beat everyone, just one entity and it's component parts. But at the same time, they only have to beat us. Politics in this country is zero-sum, and none of us have the luxury, as an opposition party, of thinking we are consecrated by anything other than the imperative to get back in the governing seat.

I don't subscribe to the great man theory of history, and anyone who would wrap politics up in the fortunes of an individual is nuts (looking at you, WJC). But clearly, we are going to have to somehow get into positions of leadership people who have the vision and the judgment to make victory happen; I hope of the Democratic Party it can be said "once you have the right people, everything else falls into place". This is a tough, tough, tough, difficult and complex thing to do on an institutional level, but it's what must happen and hopefully what is happening. Whether our leadership today is better than it was in 2002 remains to be seen, but suffice to say, we'll know in a year and a half.

To conclude this long, unfocused rant, it's clear the desire on the part of Democrats and progressives for hierarchy, for structure, and for the architecture of a real political machine is growing, but it's going to be a much slower, and perhaps incomplete and unsuccessful journey if we don't have the real ends of all these discussions at the forefront of our thought. And one of the reasons we need that machine is that only it do one of the many things the pre-existing method of our nomination process has not been able to do, pick winning presidential candidates.

Posted by: SamAm | May 4, 2005 8:46:29 PM

Sorry SamAm,
Personality often provides the winning margin in politics and the decisive edge in history . Arnold didn't get to be govenor because of the superior structure of California Republican Party or his stand on the issues. Ronald Regan's success depended on his ability to personally connect with people using television. Personality isn't everything, but it allowed the press to treat Bush much better than Gore and hid Bush's shortcomings. Our elections are decided by the middle 20 percent who don't pay attention to politics until 2 weeks before the election. Many of them vote for the cqandidate who makes them "feel" better or against the candidate he/she doesn't "like". By the way, I do believe that the right(or wrong) people at the right time can have a great impact on history.

Posted by: marvtoler | May 4, 2005 9:39:42 PM

And personality, it should be noted, helps Dems too. It's why Clinton triumphed over Bush and, for that matter, Dole.

Posted by: Ezra | May 4, 2005 9:46:08 PM

Hold on! The people who are best suited to run for president aren't best suited to be president?

Quick. Name the three most successful Democratic presidents.

FDR, JFK, Bill.

What does John Rogers say about them?

I don't know what kinds of presidents Gore and Kerry would have been. They would have had an awful hard time of it, with the Congresses they'd have had to deal with. To have been able to defeat a GOP controlled Congress they would have had to go around it and appeal straight to the People.

In a democarcy the ability to persuade people that you have their best interests at heart is a valuable governing skill.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | May 4, 2005 9:59:36 PM

My point is that the system we have now is crap at choosing nominees in part because Democratic primary voters cannot rely on party elites (who should by all rights have a clue about winning elections) to choose good candidates.

Posted by: SamAm | May 4, 2005 10:41:33 PM

Quick. Name the three most successful Democratic presidents.

FDR, JFK, Bill.

What does John Rogers say about them?

I'd say they were all masters of the skills I'm talking about. All of them -- FDR and JFK in particular -- managed to either identify and focus on the elements that made them "us" in the American mind, or successfully defined "them" in the American mind so they defaulted to "us." Skills which need to be discussed, in perhaps a more hands-on, less theoretical manner than most "framing" discussions. Perhaps other progressives running in elections, or even trying to adance thier agenda with the Great Middle, might find something useful in this series of posts. Unlike a lot of writers, though, I'm not selling some huge master plan. Just discussing ideas based on years of practical experience.

I also agree with Lance -- although there are things in the American system I don't care for, the ability to win arguments, state your ideas concisely in a way which allows them to propogate through culture, and generally rally support on an emotional level aren't shallow skills that debase a politician somehow ... they're what separate a politician from a policy wonk. Nothing wrong with being either, but a man should know whether he can hit a curveball or not, if you catch my meaning, and decide his place on the team accordingly.

Posted by: rogers | May 5, 2005 1:20:25 AM

Yeah, Douglas Adams said the same thing with Zaphod Beeblebrox.

It's not a hit on George Bush that the movie version sounds like the current American President--he is supposed to be the modern American President. Glitz and glam first, substance...maybe later.

Posted by: theorajones | May 5, 2005 9:54:18 AM

I think that select for President, are also the most important skills for the job.

No matter how smart you are, and how good at policy you are, the government is too big a behemoth for an individual to manage. You have to have people skills and be able to build a competant team.

The most successful CEOs in business are not the smartest guys in their companies. The don't need to have the most knowledge about their industry or have every number ready at the drop of a hat. What they must have, it the ability to get people to work together for a common goal.

If you could choose between the Candidate A, who is the smartest man in the world, and Candidate B, a man who can get the 2nd through 10th smartest men in the world to work together, you would pick B every time.

Posted by: Dave Justus | May 5, 2005 11:40:35 AM

Ever notice how people are often least tolerant in others of what they don't like in themselves?

This is why journalists unconsciously didn't give Gore or Kerry as fair a ride as they gave Bush. Unconsciously - I want to emphasize this word. There's no other explanation for the inconsistently applied bias we saw. Like Gore and Kerry, journalists are intellectuals, smart, believers in argument and logic....but *different* than most people. Bush is more successful socially, which is what journalists/intellectuals aspire to be.

I agree, we must not nominate intellectuals anymore.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | May 5, 2005 1:12:09 PM

Crab makes a good point about journalists' self-loathing. I'm not sure that it's just that they hated Gore and Kerry---and Clinton. Remember, they didn't come around on him until after he'd survived the Impeachment and proved how popular he was; then they groveled before his power and ability to win---for being like them. They hated them for being like them, except much better at it.

The best journalist in the world is a slacker next to the hyper over achievers the Democrats keep nominating, not just for President but for just about every elected office on down to village selectman.

And we know how many of the national press corps are truly among the best journalists. Judy Miller, anybody?

But I also wonder how much of the media's hatred of Gore and Kerry was really hatred of their staffs. The candidates themselves really have very little interaction with the press and I wonder if the problem is that the Democrats hire too many A students with poor social skills and big chips on their shoulders.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | May 6, 2005 8:16:59 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.