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February 20, 2007

Celebrity Politicians

Matt writes:

In retrospect, however, Bush was less the last of the governor presidents than a transition to the new era in which, to be president, you need to be a famous celebrity. Mayors of New York City are always famous, because the people who run the media live in New York. Hence, Rudy Giuliani is a serious candidate (and even Michael Bloomberg is considered a more serious possibility than he should be). John McCain spent all of 1999, 2000, and 2001 chasing positive press and became famous in the process -- so he's a serious candidate. Barack Obama has an extremely interesting personal story and was one of the only Democratic successes in 2004, so he became famous and now he's a serious candidate. John Edwards got famous running on a national ticket, so he's a serious candidate. Hillary Clinton's husband used to be president (you may have heard), so she's famous and she's a serious candidate. Most absurdly, Mitt Romney happened to preside over the Massachusetts gay marriage controversy, thus becoming famous and, therefore, a serious candidate.

The only alternative path to achieving "seriousness" as a contender, it seems, is the one that Mark Warner followed -- being governor of Virginia, where a healthy proportion of the country's political class lives.

Some of these examples are stronger than others. Edwards was a "more" serious candidate in 2003 than he is in 2007, largely because he looks like a celebrity and was on Gore's shortlist. I don't buy the Romney rationale. His "seriousness" comes from the universal health care plan, which is the sort of compromise-politics the media likes, the fact that he's a Mormon and that's-kinda-weird, and, once again, he looks like a movie star. And even Rudy is serious because he unexpectedly got a starring role in a major televised event, not just because media types live in New York. Schwarzenegger was being talked up two years ago literally because he was a celebrity, he'd done nothing in California.

But those arguments don't harm Matt's central point, which is that celebrity has overwhelmed all other considerations. The path to that celebrity can be argued over, but substantive policy achievements and broad, deep experience isn't it. If Bill Richardson* looked like Matt Santos, maybe he'd be a "serious" candidate. But not until.

*I should probably say that I attended a small policy breakfast with Richardson and found him very underwhelming. He talked of tax cuts and making Democrats "the party of space." His is a resume without -- at least thus far -- an inspiring vision or a clear ideology, and it's worth saying that pure technocrats rarely win national elections. The hunger for celebrity is unfair, but the appetite for inspiration isn't necessarily off-base.

February 20, 2007 | Permalink


I have to say, it IS pretty ridiculous that Mitt Romney is a top-tier presidential candidate. There are any number of longer-serving, more loyally conservative Republican governors out there. That, and Mitt's son is named "Tagg." What next in the baseball-word-plus-extra-consonant family, Balll?

Posted by: Marshall | Feb 20, 2007 5:18:18 PM

This celebrity thing isn't THAT new. FDR was nationally known. Eisenhower was a war hero (and so was McArthur). Nixon had Alger Hiss and was VP. Reagun as both TV and movie person and Gov. Bush I was VP and a some of everything else. Bush II had a baseball team, LOL (and he was a good liar with a daddy/mommy that would clear a path and ensure money was available in more than ample supply.)

Just being extra competent clearly isn't enough (Kathleen Sebelius!)

When people say electability, they are mostly saying the person is well known, hasn't crapped on the floor publicly, and has lots of money behind them. Oh, and the media can't hate them either. (Watch out Hillary!)

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 20, 2007 5:47:55 PM

I too agree with the central premise of celebrity being a dominant force in the percieved seriousness of political candidates, but I think there's a little more going on in the case of Romney. I lived in Boston during the year Romney was elected and for a year or two after (to be far, so did Matt Yglesias, I believe) and during the year after his election it was clear in the local conservative media that Romney's stint in Boston was deliberately designed as a stepping stone toward a presidential run.

Jay Severin, in particular, was touting him as "the next president of the United States" as I recall. Severin was the local hotshot conservative radio host, who has since gone on to national syndication, and a former GOP operative and campaign strategist -- he has a modest national media profile, but he's clearly very well connected in the right-wing noise machine.

The narrative I'm proposing is this:
GOP operatives and media types decided several years ago that Romney had a future. In 2002 the MA governer's seat was vulnerable and Romney was persuaded by operatives to run, which he did, and he won. Immediately thereafter those operatives started sowing the seeds of presidential speculation. The GOP then introduced him to the national party at the GOP convention in 2004. During his governership he positioned himself to appeal to the conservative base with the anti-gay-marriage issue and to appeal to centrists with the health-care initiative. The media was already primed by the behind-the-scenes work of the GOP operatives and media types to take Romney seriously, and the major issues of his MA Governership served as vehicles for him to be launched into the eye of the general public.

In short, the Romney fame has been carefully cultivated by well-placed GOP operatives who have been grooming him since prior to 2002. Romney may have lucked into the gay marriage controversy, but part of the strategy of getting him elected to a state like MA would have been precisely the likelyhood that some core neo-southern-strategy issue was likely to arise which could be parlayed into support from the conservative base. A governor in a red state won't make any headlines for taking conservative positions, but a Republican in a blue state will. A powerful segment of the GOP has handpicked Romney as the nominee in 08, and it will be interesting to see if any of the other contenders can unseat him.

In other news, it always amuses me how the standards for being judged to "look like a movie star" when you're a politician seem somewhat lower than the standards applied to actual movie stars. Romney isn't a bad looking guy, and neither was, say, Bill Clinton. But neither one of them stack up against actual Hollywood eye candy.

Posted by: Galen H. Brown | Feb 20, 2007 6:17:59 PM

You forgot Huckabee, who is a very serious candidate, and maybe--after Guiliani and McCain self-destruct--the biggest threat for Dems.

Posted by: annie | Feb 20, 2007 6:26:53 PM

Not one of MY's stronger efforts. Both McCain and Edwards became celebrities when they did better than expected in presidental primaries, and Romney is considered a good candidate because, uh, he's a good candidate. (5 for 8 is acceptable when you're shooting free throws, not so much when you're trying to make an argument.) Romney has political talent, and that's what the eight people MY named have in common. They're articulate and/or attractive and/or manifestly intelligent. Appealing, that is. Richardson, by contrast, is overweight, inarticulate, and prone to groping women.

In fact, this time around the buzz machine did a pretty good job of picking candidates. Now, if you enjoy futile exercises, you could wish that looks and eloquence were less important than resume and book smarts, but I'm not sure it's such a problem that people want a president who's easy to look at and listen to, and in any case, this is a different issue from the importance of celebrity.

Posted by: david mizner | Feb 20, 2007 6:32:03 PM

When it comes to competence and experience Richardson can't be beat by anyone currently in the running. But celebrity's also make their own fame, and he's so uninspiring I doubt he'll ever get any traction. He was on Hardball last week, one of the first national media exposures for him since he announced probably, and was about as exciting as dirty laundry. A leader needs to inspire the people and successful celebrities can do that on their own. They may get some help from the media, but if they can't generate and or perpetuate their own "celebrity image" than I doubt they can lead a country all that well either.

Posted by: Fred | Feb 20, 2007 6:43:00 PM

The sample size here is way too small; we have no idea who's going to run in 2012 or 2016. If Dems lose in '08, they will have an awful lot of governors to choose from, and if any of them have approval ratings over 60%, they'll most likely take a close look at a run.

I would point out that Reagan was certainly famous when he ran in 1980 (and probably 1976). This means that only Dole, Clinton in '92, Dukakis, and Carter can really say they weren't famous at the time they ran.

In short, there is nothing preventing us from having a Strickland-Schweitzer ticket at some point in the near future.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Feb 20, 2007 6:49:09 PM

Don't forget Nick, Dole would totally fit MY's somewhat arbitrary definitions of "famous". He was a player in DC, and therefore the lazy media would rather cover him.

As to the person who says the GOP was "grooming" Romney, maybe, but for most of the relevant time period you discuss it seemed that George Allen was the conservative heir-apparant. The "mayberry machiavelli" operatives you reference don't seem to go in for any help to Northeasterners, especially picking them as candidates.

Posted by: Tony V | Feb 20, 2007 7:08:44 PM

I'd second much of Galen Brown's post - Romney looks like the one most followingv Bush's own playbook (right to down to uninspiring scion of a political family). The interesting thing is whether it will succeed - I think the Mormon thing is a real hurdle, more than some right wing types (K Lo at NRO chief among them) think, and different from what some lefty types are predicting it to be.

That said, I think there is a constant here - good looking will always work. More than Romney or others, I'd point to Edwards, who is handsome to the point of distratcion and whose rise to the last national ticket had everything to do with that - a double edged sword that still hasn't quite been the advantage it should be for him (when you're that good looking, I think, people don't expect much of you, which is counterintuitive in a political career). His look also veers toward pretty and ageless - again, not helping him to achieve seriousness and gravitas. Whatever he's using (moisturizer? Botox?), he should probably let some lines develop; they could only help.

Yes, it's all shallow. But shallow matters.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 20, 2007 7:33:09 PM

Romney is top-tier because just looks and sounds like a President--you know, the elder statesman look. That and he's been running for the Presidency since forever, which really counts for a lot.

Edwards, while theoretically handsome, appears to be a pretty boy--lightweight, egotistical, etc. So I don't even know if his looks are an asset. There's a devestating Youtube floating out there somewhere of Edwards combing his hair for three minutes straight, set to the tune of "I feel pretty." I mean, come'on.

Ezra has a good line: "Technocrats don't win elections." Can't be said enough!

Posted by: Korha | Feb 20, 2007 8:22:11 PM

Matt has the track record completely wrong. Famous Democrats simply don't win. The only two Democrats to win election since 1976, Carter and Clinton, weren't famous until they won a few primaries. Mondale, Gore, and arguably Kerry were already famous when they won the primaries and then lost presidential elections. Dukakis and McGovern, on the other hand, were not famous and lost.

Posted by: arthur | Feb 20, 2007 8:33:44 PM

> Romney is top-tier because just looks and sounds like a President

To me there's way too much car-salesman in there. I don't see stately and Presidential so much as I do slick. I like his voice though.

Posted by: Fred | Feb 20, 2007 9:05:30 PM

If I was running for President, I'd rather look like a car salesman than a double-chinned bore. You do have a good point though. Charisma is in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by: Korha | Feb 20, 2007 9:18:43 PM

Christ, shouldn't we wait until a single one of these so-called "celebrities" actually becomes President before we talk about a trend?

Posted by: DonBoy | Feb 20, 2007 9:34:46 PM

Charisma is in the eye of the beholder.

So true. The problem is that people buy used cars with alarming frequency.

Romney never struck me as a used car salesman, though. He came across as more the guy who exudes an aura of, "People trust me because I'm tall and have thick hair," which, for me, means I automatically do not trust him. The rest of the world feels differently, however, which is how people like Romney and most members of corporate boards got as far as they have.

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 20, 2007 10:58:46 PM

Erza the gay marriage thing is probably more on point then the whole MA healthcare issue which rarely gets mentioned. What is happening is that frequently in races particularly in primaries for all levels of races local, district wide, statewide, and presidential is that the only candidates that get to be serious contenders are those that fit one or more of three traits.
1) name ID and favorability
2) money
3) media coverage(amount, type of coverage, and whether they considr you to have a good chance in the primary).

In past years what happened is that retail campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire let candidates who won or performed well greatly increase 1, 2, and 3.

In this race the increase in campaign costs and the presence of 3 big names and favorabilities on the Dem side makes the previous strategy very hard for longer shot candidates.

On the republican side name ID and money(or potential money) and favorability(more fore the mayor) and a sense of inevitability for McCain make them top candidates. The interesting standout is Romney, with the lowest name ids of any in the top three lists for dems or republicans, who largely by hype of the media has positioned himself as the leading conservative alternative despite not being that conservative and flip flopping on a bunch of issues. And has earned his position due to that and the organization he has built using that image.

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