IN THE WANING DAYS of the Dole-Kemp ’96 presidential campaign, Sen. Dole motioned to me to join him in the cluster of four seats at the front left side of the airplane, his on-board command center. Two pairs of seats faced each other. Dole always occupied the first seat on the aisle, from which he could look back into the rest of the plane, eyeing his staff and behind them, the traveling press corps. The other three seats were reserved for his wife when she traveled with us, a distinguished campaign guest (President Ford, singer Lee Greenwood, golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, and others all occupied these seats briefly), or a member of the senior staff with whom Dole wanted to confer.
On this day, as on most, Dole sat alone. Then he nodded in my direction, a signal that something was on his mind.
"What do you think," he asked, "if we were to announce that if we don’t get our tax cuts from Congress within the first two years, I’ll resign?"
I instantly recognized the idea as the type of ill-conceived, eleventh-hour gimmick that presidential campaigns find irresistible. It depressed me. But as the designated "policy advisor" on board, I knew it was my job to knock the idea down.
I patiently explained to the senator why he should not allow a stubborn Congress to jettison his presidency. His 15 percent across-the-board tax cut was a serious, carefully constructed plan worth fighting for, even if it took four years or more. Moreover, I argued, there was no reason for him to signal in advance that his plan might be rejected. He should exude a sense of confidence and commitment while leading the charge for comprehensive tax reform.
Dole listened, then sought the views of aides across the aisle. Soon enough, he turned back to me, apparently persuaded by the cool reason of my argument.
"Okay," he said, "forget that idea. Instead we’ll just say that if we don’t get the tax cuts in two years, Kemp will resign."
This tiny glimpse of the life inside the most recent Republican presidential campaign might partially explain why a generation of Republican staff and advisors could not help but find the perpetually irascible Dole to be an endearing figure. But the story is also a fair illustration of the strange, highly unstructured, seat-of-the-pants quality of policy making on a presidential campaign. On Dole’s campaign plane, and on the airplanes of so many other candidates, major decisions are made on a whim.
To those less familiar with the mechanics of a national political campaign, the notion that policy making is often a disorganized, even careless undertaking may seem surprising. "Policy" and "issues," after all, are traditionally thought to be the most serious and sensitive components of any national election campaign. Ostensibly, they are at the core of a candidate’s appeal. Aides tasked with identifying and fleshing out policy proposals are viewed by pundits as the in-house experts, the technocrats, and the vital link to the community of think tanks, budget czars, and policy intellectuals in Washington. Journalists such as Joe Klein and E.J. Dionne quote them extensively, giving credence to the notion that campaigns have a deep attachment to serious new thinking on the issues.
Whether such new thinking ever makes its way through the campaign apparatus and into the mouth of a candidate matters little. Presidential campaigns elaborately go through the motions of recruiting and meeting with policy advisors. And the policy world is delighted to oblige. Every four years, economists, criminologists, and welfare analysts from academia cheerfully fly across the country to confer with presidential aspirants and discuss substantive matters. Working committees are assembled to produce policy papers on sugar subsidies, export policy, arms control, and other issues of no relevance to the outcome of an election. Teams of "gray beards" gather to review every press statement on economics and foreign policy. Unsolicited memos, sometimes running more than a dozen pages, are furtively handed to a candidate’s aides during rallies or fundraisers by aspiring Washington experts.
All these efforts are not in vain. Campaigns work hard to attract and develop policy ideas because every voter wants to know — or at least claims to want to know — where a candidate stands "on the issues." But what the public, the press, and even the candidate mean by "the issues" has become less clear as ideology has seeped out of our national political culture. It is a truism that television ads, polling, fundraising, sound bites, and gabbing with the press now occupy a far more prominent and important role in national political contests.
But less well-understood is how, in the hands of campaign strategists, policy formulation has been reduced to a less controversial and ultimately less consequential activity. Campaigns rarely make or propose policy these days. It is considered too risky an undertaking. Ideas still have consequences, but that may be the reason presidential campaigns keep a safe distance from them. Campaign strategy, for the most part, has become an exercise less in developing policy than in diluting it.
Policy at the periphery
IN HIS MOST RECENT BOOK, The New Prince, erstwhile Clinton advisor Dick Morris argues that "issues" are nothing more than the proper distillation and interpretation of public sentiment. This is hardly news. Almost every prominent politician adheres to this view. Indeed, the fact that polling, not policy, drives a national campaign has been true for more than three decades. Looking back on recent campaigns, what is striking is how rarely a presidential candidate has used his election bid to set out a clear agenda. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign is the glaring exception, one that seems to prove the rule.
The late John Ehrlichman was a top campaign manager during Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential run and became domestic policy advisor in the White House. In his post-Watergate days, he spoke often about the president’s underappreciated domestic agenda on the environment, Indian affairs, and economics. But in his political memoir, Ehrlichman’s discussion of campaign policy is limited to the details of advance work and crowd building. "Policy" appears to have been restricted to strategies for dealing with anti-Nixon hecklers at carefully orchestrated rallies. With the exception of his speeches on ending the war in Vietnam, it is hard to find a single policy idea consistently promoted during the 1968 Republican campaign.
Eight years later, in September 1976, Jimmy Carter discovered that he had won the Democratic nomination and coasted through a national convention without ever advancing a substantive set of ideas for governance. In a meeting with his closest advisors in Plains, Ga. he realized that their campaign was based solely on the phrases "leadership," "competence," and "the economy." He was fortunate, however. He faced a Ford campaign that was even more content-free.
That was no accident. In June of that year, trailing Carter by 15 points, the president’s advisors proposed a "no campaign strategy" keeping the president within the confines of the Rose Garden until the fall debates.
Even a candidate as closely associated with (conservative) policy issues as Reagan chose not to base his 1984 re-election bid on the appeal of policy proposals. Despite the fact that he had spent much of his public career talking about tax cuts, there was nothing in Ronald Reagan’s speeches or statements during 1984 even hinting that the country would, two years later, adopt the most far-reaching tax reform plan of the postwar era.
That policy was irrelevant to his re-election campaign was something tacitly acknowledged by his advisors — even those reputed to be policy experts. When in the fall of 1984 the campaign managers from both sides gathered at the Kennedy School’s quadrennial bacchanalia of campaign retrospectives, Richard Darman was asked what specific policies played a role in the president’s re-election campaign. The best list he could come up with included the administration’s decision not to challenge the War Powers Resolution during the incursion in Lebanon; the so-called TEFRA tax increase in 1982 (sound policy, by his lights); and initiatives to promote Hispanics and women in the workplace. It is safe to say that today no one else remembers these policy ideas of the ’84 campaign.
By contrast, Bill Clinton’s exhaustively documented 1992 campaign appeared, at the time, to be a revival of the idea-driven campaign. Clinton was a self-styled "policy wonk." He loved discussing ideas. He stayed up all hours at the Renaissance Weekend, or at meetings of the Southern Governors Association or Democratic Leadership Council, chewing over ideas about universal health care and job creation programs. His popular town meetings and economic summits were touted as informal settings for the exchange of ideas.
At this remove, however, the ’92 campaign looks much less like an exercise in national policy discussion than his advocates at the time wanted us to believe. Putting People First, the campaign document touted as the core of Clinton’s policy agenda, has grown flimsy with age. Of course, no campaign document should be expected to be a work of original economic and policy research, nor a document for the ages. But in Putting People First we see the unmistakable signs of Clinton’s ability to use the patina of policy to appear substantive. Rather than merely ignoring policy, as so many earlier campaigns had done, Clinton in 1992 had figured out how policy was useful — an easily manipulated instrument of campaign politics. Policy, government’s most solemn enterprise, had become a means to the end of electoral victory, not an end in itself.
We now know from Bob Woodward’s book, The Agenda, that most of the policy prescriptions in Putting People First were mere gestures intended to suggest a commitment to health care, new spending, and a middle class tax cut without advancing any specific proposals. That was enough for the campaign to cultivate a following among policy experts and ideas types, who were free to fill in the blanks with whatever suited their fancy. These indispensable allies, in turn, showed up on C-SPAN and were quoted in the Washington Post attesting to the fact that Clinton’s campaign was deeply committed to ideas, lending the candidate credibility and an air of seriousness even in the absence of specifics. But as Woodward and others have revealed, the major policy debate during the creation of Putting People First was how to back up Ira Magaziner’s preposterous claim that universal health care could be provided without increasing the budget deficit. (Interestingly, for all the fanfare Putting People First received in 1992, it barely merits a mention in George Stephanopoulos’s recent memoir.)
The true superficiality of Democratic policy making during the ’92 campaign comes in a telling anecdote related by Woodward. In the final weekend before releasing Putting People First, Clinton friend and advisor Robert Reich had been hospitalized for hip surgery. But he still insisted on seeing the final draft of the policy book.
No mere "Friend of Bill," Reich had established himself as one of Clinton’s most influential ideas men. He also had the professional pedigree — a Harvard professor who had written widely on economics and labor policy. When he examined the draft of Putting People First he immediately placed an anguished call to Clinton aide Gene Sperling, the document’s chief editor. This was Reich’s opportunity to shape the central policy document of the campaign and perhaps commit a future Clinton administration to a specific legislative agenda. With this enviable opportunity Reich insisted on the addition of just two ideas. The first was the establishment of an "Economic Security Council." Sperling added it to the draft and, once in office, Clinton established this meaningless layer of bureaucratic turf inside the already crowded confines of federal economic policy. (And in the tradition of policy advisors creating otherwise unnecessary positions for themselves, the council is now headed by Sperling himself.) The second and still more fatuous idea Reich wanted in the book was his pet theory about the centrality of human capital. Sperling quickly satisfied the request with this hoary piece of boilerplate: "The only resource that’s really rooted in a nation — and the ultimate source of all its wealth — is its people." The Clinton team understood that, by the early 1990s, posturing had become policy.
By late 1995, Clinton no longer had the luxury of posing as policy entrepreneur. His most ambitious idea, health care reform, had become a case study in policy-making debacles and a principal contributor to the Democrats’ loss of both chambers of Congress in 1994. Moreover, in the "Contract with America" and in tireless appearances as the chief explainer of the new "Republican Revolution," Newt Gingrich was the new star on the ideas front. Clinton’s good news came in the form of Dick Morris, who assured his candidate that policy was no longer necessary. Thus, the 1996 campaign against Dole was deliberately designed to avoid any of the ambitious plans that had shaped his 1992 campaign. The role of policy wonk was quickly abandoned. Instead of a candidate of ideas, Clinton had become a representative of an abstract concept: the sensible center between the irresponsible extremes of hard-hearted Republicanism and soft-headed liberalism. This much-discussed pursuit of "triangulation" successfully foiled the Republican strategy of painting the president as an unrepentant liberal committed to the reintroduction of health care mega-legislation among other big-government prescriptions. It also had the practical effect of marginalizing the role of substantive policy throughout the election campaign.
The fear of ideas
MORRIS IS NO FOOL. He understood something that many policy experts do not: The public rarely responds to ambitious policy measures. Despite the perennial demand from the press for "specifics," the public finds specifics boring. Moreover, in public opinion surveys, voters never mention (perhaps they are never asked about) across-the-board tax cuts, private Social Security accounts, or family tax credits as subjects they care about most. Instead, they invariably list "the economy," "drugs and crime," or "education" as the most important issues facing the nation. But rather than treat these vague responses as a general guide to popular sentiment, the pollster-strategists interpret this data as a strategic mandate from the voters. They thus conclude that their candidate must run as "the education president" or mention the nation’s "moral crisis" prominently in every speech.
The pollster-strategists believe not only that this is a wise course for attracting voters, but also that it is safest. Almost every focus group and poll tells campaign staff that ordinary voters recoil whenever they confront controversial ideas. Ideas about taxes or health care or education that voters have never heard of are controversial. Here, for example, is advice given to Sen. Dole by journeyman Republican political advisor Don Devine in April 1995, almost a year and half before the presidential election and long before the budget showdown and government shutdown: "If there is one [issue] that can blow our coalition off course it is Medicare. I’ve seen the focus groups and polls done by the RNC."
Medicare, in other words, was yet another third rail. Touch it, and you die. What Devine fails to mention, however, is that by that time, the Democratic National Committee, under the direction of Dick Morris, had already begun preparing television ads warning the public about "Dole-Gingrich" spending cuts that would gut Medicare (among other things). They began to air in July 1995, more than a year before the nominating conventions. As he describes in his memoir Behind the Oval Office, Morris was flabbergasted that the gop never responded:
Once we were advertising heavily, no rational strategist should have failed to oppose our ads, especially ones so aggressively pointed at Dole’s and Gingrich’s issue positions. I kept telling myself, "They have to answer." But they never did. . . . I was stumped.
What mystified Morris shouldn’t have been so puzzling. The fact is that the Republican campaign advisors were (as Devine tells us) reading the same polling results indicating public concerns about Medicare. Spooked by the possibility that any new idea to reform the program — even one that could easily be shown to improve it — would be perceived as too controversial, the Dole campaign kept mum, with the disastrous consequences that followed.
New ideas are contentious, tedious, or simply unfamiliar. That is the principal reason campaign strategists don’t like them. It is impossible to appreciate the inner dynamics of a presidential campaign without understanding this tension between promoting a bold vision and scaring off potential voters who, despite all the blather about "change," often defiantly cling to the status quo. Because of this tension, campaign managers and candidates turn to polling results.
There is a tendency among policy intellectuals to dismiss out of hand the role of polling in presidential campaigns. That is too hasty a judgement. Any serious campaign must rely on polling to determine in which states a candidate has a chance to succeed, whether paid advertising can have an impact, and what the most revealing perceived strengths and weaknesses of a candidate are. Polling tells a campaign where it should spend money and focus its efforts. And it helps reassure campaign managers that the millions of dollars about to be spent on advertising could actually have an impact. For decades, every serious presidential campaign has been based on a theory of winning that is ultimately constructed by detailed examination of polling data.
But once a campaign is under way, the deeper controversy over polling begins. The polling adherents (who usually extend well beyond the campaign’s professional pollsters) typically want to design a campaign around a series of themes that have demonstrated resonance in focus groups. They advocate the repeated use of specific words and phrases that have generated strong positive responses from "dial groups" — the focus groups in which individuals instantly register their reaction to a speech or advertisement with a hand-held device. It is a very circular exercise. Themes are what pollsters explore in focus groups and, therefore, themes are what shape a campaign. Their advice to candidates is to present easily digestible themes that change each day, week, or month. To these advisors, the "issues" are non-divisive topics such as "jobs," "child care," "the economy," or "our children."
The policy crowd, on the other hand, wants the candidate to take his case to the public through a hard-hitting, specific agenda: a short list of what the candidate will do in office. Policy advocates want health care reform, tax cuts, job creation, the minimum wage, or environmental protection to set the terms of the campaign. They talk about speeches rather than phrases. They believe the New York Times is more influential than "Good Morning America" (because the former focuses on issues while the latter promotes general sentiments). And while policy advocates, too, construct thematic scenarios for the campaign, they almost always return to advocacy of a series of bold initiatives.
The split between policy advocates and theme promoters divides every presidential campaign. This is why the hardest fought battles among campaign staff rarely involve matters of policy, nor do the divisions that emerge within a campaign along the usual liberal, moderate, or conservative lines have much significance. The central struggle for control in a campaign is more frequently over how large a role policy should play in a candidate’s pursuit of the presidency in the first place.
A good example can be seen in President Bush’s re-election campaign. In June 1992, campaign strategist Mike Murphy sent a powerful memo to the Bush/Quayle re-election team, whose response illustrates just how uncomfortable a campaign can be with the world of policy. Murphy warned that the only way to energize the listless campaign was to announce something like a "First 100 Days of the Second Term" strategy. He urged the campaign to consider an unambiguous list of initiatives — school choice, term limits, tax relief, balanced budget, spending cuts — that would make clear the difference between Republican and Democratic leadership that the Clinton campaign was trying to erase. In the parlance of campaigning, these would be "defining ideas."
Murphy believed that policy ideas make campaigns. He argued, essentially, that the fruitless search for a "vision" theme would yield inconsequential results if the candidate could not tell the voters what he was going to do with the most powerful office in the world.
Murphy’s unsolicited advice, not surprisingly, was never seriously considered. The chief strategist of Bush’s re-election campaign that year was Robert Teeter, an accomplished senior pollster. He had long before concluded that a candidate’s personal qualities were far more important than any policy proposals. He convinced the president and other senior aides that what was needed was a series of powerful themes — leadership, foreign policy, trust, etc. In John Podhoretz’s wonderful book about the Bush White House, Hell of a Ride, he describes how Teeter passed out an organization chart for the Bush election strategy. In the center was a box titled "message." The box was empty.
How themes trump ideas
TEETER'S HAPLESS MANAGEMENT of the Bush campaign notwithstanding, the pursuit of evocative themes, not policy, is the prevailing theory inside both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns. We know this because, for more than 20 years now, campaign strategists have been dutifully leaking campaign memos to reporters who then faithfully reprint them in campaign wrap-up books published once the election is over.
Read today, they are a depressing body of literature. Most of the publicly available memos by presidential campaign strategists are full of the pseudo-science of polling accompanied by overly stern statements about the need to send a message. When specific policy ideas appear, they seem incidental to the purpose of the campaign strategy. All of them seem to embrace pollster Pat Cadell’s view that "presidential politics is always about images." His memos to Carter during the 1980 campaign are classics of the genre. In June 1980, when all signs indicated that Carter was in deep trouble, Cadell wrote: "people must be given a positive reason to vote for Jimmy Carter." Yet nowhere in a several thousand word memo does he even suggest what that positive reason might be.
Advice in the form of a strong call to action, without ever specifying the action, has also been in plentiful supply in Republican campaigns. In November 1991, when it first became apparent that the good feelings of the Persian Gulf War had evaporated for President Bush, Fred Malek, the man who would become deputy chairman of the president’s re-election effort, sent a note arguing that what the campaign needed was "a clear set of Presidential initiatives [that] will help convey the image that you are in command domestically as well as in foreign affairs." Initiatives were needed, but what those initiatives should be seemed a secondary concern.
This kind of abstract campaign strategy, removed from the world of ideas and substance, is not restricted to losing campaigns. Stuart Spencer, the manager of Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984, wrote to the White House: "We must let Ronald Reagan be Ronald Reagan by reinforcing the President’s personality, characteristics, attributes, and values rather than defending a substantive record of aging victories." In a later memo he announced the purpose of the campaign: "to establish the President’s vision of the future and the direction he will take and priorities for a second term."
Luckily, that fuzzy advice wasn’t substantially different from what Reagan’s 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale, was receiving. His most thoughtful and influential speechwriter, Bernard Aronson, was quick to recognize that Mondale’s dyed-in-the-wool liberalism was a campaign albatross. "The Mondale agenda for the 1980s," he wrote in one of a series of long strategy memos, is merely "the agendas of the NEA, AFL-CIO, UJA, NAACP, Sierra Club, LULAC, now, and the Gertrude Stein Club stapled together." Aronson seemed to understand that interest group politics was an insufficient message for a weak Democratic Party. But in the end, he, too, seemed incapable of recommending a better course of action for his candidate or even a specific policy idea. All he could suggest is that Mondale appear tough: "You must convince Americans that you will draw lines and stand your ground, take stands and fight for them, and kick ass, if necessary to get the job done." What, exactly, the job was that needed to get done, Aronson never mentioned.
Advisors who have few ideas about policy nevertheless want their candidates to appear tough, uncompromising, and committed to that "vision thing." The desire to have a powerful, thematic message far overshadows interest in having an agenda. This holds true even for superbly managed campaigns. The Clinton campaign of 1992 was message-obsessed. "It’s the economy, stupid" instantly became an irritating Washington cliché. But note: Nothing in that clever little slogan suggested what a President Clinton would do about the economy. No matter. It was sufficient merely to appear deadly serious about it.
It would be an exaggeration to say that campaigns are devoid of policy ideas. In fact, polling has guaranteed that certain indisputably popular policies become a standard part of a candidate’s message. Throughout the 1990s, a majority of voters said they supported a balanced budget. The death penalty for "drug kingpins" is an idea that pollsters refer to as an "80/20" — 80 percent of voters approve of it. But in general, the public reaction to previously unheard-of policy plans is chilly. In any case, polls are better at gauging support for general ideas, not specifics. ("Would you say that the environment is ‘very important,’ ‘important,’ ‘somewhat important,’ or ‘not important at all’?") So candidates, who understandably want to run on something that has data backing up its appeal, run on general ideas.
This, then, is the dilemma that confronts the policy advisors in every presidential campaign. A national campaign, one might assume, is the best forum for introducing a new framework for policy ideas. At no other time are so many people paying attention. The months-long campaign would "road test" ideas that could become the basis for a new governing agenda after the election. But everywhere during the campaign, the policy advisors are presented with "statistical evidence" that the new ideas that could make a campaign interesting and worthwhile apparently make voters uncomfortable.
In this context, the term "issues" has come to mean a cluster of related unobjectionable sentiments. Dick Morris made it virtually a fetish to reduce every idea to a tiny policy initiative whose chief value was its ability to crystallize a Third Way theme. Under the influence of such advisors, policy initiatives became merely the handmaiden of some evocative but ultimately meaningless theme.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the memo Democratic pollsters Mark Penn and Doug Schoen shared with the president in October 1995. In it, they describe at length the results of their "Neuro-Personality Poll," which claimed to show what types of people are attracted to the Clinton personality. Their assessment of this data makes a mockery of the notion that campaigns should be influenced by serious ideas. Instead of identifying ideas and seeing how the public might respond, the two pollsters manufactured a series of bland sentiments to see which ones voters would warm to. Thus was Bill Clinton’s "values agenda" born. "‘Finding a Common Ground’ is an interesting value" they wrote, while sketching out a campaign strategy. Other pillars of the re-election effort include "Standing up for America" (the president’s reaction to the bombing of the federal building might serve as a good illustration, they suggested); "Providing Opportunities for All Americans"; "Preserving and Promoting Families"; and, most memorably, "Doing What’s Right, Even When it is Unpopular" — a theme that itself was the product of rigorous polling to ensure that it was popular.
Fading tax cuts
THE DOLE ADVISORS of 1996 weren’t nearly so sophisticated or confident. But inside that unhappy campaign, a lively debate still boiled about how to present a set of ideas to the public. In August 1996, I arrived at Dole headquarters to help coordinate the rollout of his economic plan and to oversee the speeches he would deliver during the critical final 10 weeks. What immediately struck me was how little debate there was inside the campaign about the content of Dole’s tax plan. The more furious debate was reserved for how much it should be emphasized and how it should be described.
From the August national convention onwards, the small cadre of policy types on the Dole-Kemp campaign argued that the candidate should discuss nothing from Labor Day to election day but his plan for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut and other economic reforms. We took heart from a brilliant Wall Street Journal article by a Canadian, Allan Golombek. In it, he argued that Dole could learn from the recently elected premier of Ontario, Mike Harris, who ran talking incessantly about his tax-cutting plan. By the end of the campaign, the public had become convinced that Harris just might be serious and swept him into office.
But at the senior staff meetings and the endless message meetings, these arguments met with resistance from the core of pollsters and political advisors who held the reins of power. They cared little about the benefits the tax plan would bring. They pointed out that the tax cut was not selling in focus groups. Women, in particular, did not respond positively to the plan for lower taxes. In the poker game atmosphere of a campaign strategy debate, such focus group data is the equivalent of a royal flush. They had scientific tools to measure the public sentiment. The policy advocates on the other side of the table had merely our instincts and deeply held beliefs about the beneficial effects of lower taxes.
And so, by mid-September, the enthusiasm inside the Dole campaign for the candidate’s own tax plan was evaporating. It was time to switch themes. Convinced that "the economy" wasn’t working as a theme, the strategists rolled out the case for a campaign based on "the moral decline of America," which apparently struck the right note with the "dial groups." Paul Manafort, a veteran Republican campaign strategist, laid out a scenario in a September memo to leaders of the Dole campaign that captures the way many modern strategists view the construction of a candidate’s message:
The reason for the umbrella theme of moral decline . . . is three-fold:
1. A majority of the electorate believe there is a moral crisis in America.
2. The backdoor of moral decline is the character issue . . . .
3. It is an opportunity to employ new and meaningful language.
It is hard to see how a message might emerge from these observations, and in truth, "moral decline" was another short-lived Dole campaign theme. It’s not that those of us who believed that tax cuts should be the centerpiece of Dole’s campaign disagreed with the notion that one of our candidate’s strengths over Clinton was his moral character. But as a campaign theme, unattached to any particular agenda, moral decline struck us as a hopeless form of sentimentalism. It was more evidence of the rudderless nature of the campaign and, more painfully, of how a sound platform of tax cuts found itself at odds with a tired and uninspiring call to do something about the nation’s moral crisis.
Ours was a losing battle, and we were certainly not the first to see the traditional Republican crusade for lower taxes trampled by a more diluted, less meaningful campaign theme. In trying to defeat Dole during the early primaries that year, Steve Forbes launched a highly unconventional campaign in which a dramatic policy initiative — the flat tax — was the heart of the message. For a moment, Forbes seemed to vindicate the belief that bold policy initiatives make the best campaigns. But by the time the Forbes campaign of 1996 had arrived in New Hampshire, national polls were showing that his far-reaching tax reform policy, though galvanizing the support of some voters, was hurting him with still more. That invited Forbes’s competitors to pile on. (The candidate I was working for at the time, Lamar Alexander, seemed to open the flood gates when, during a candidate debate in Des Moines, he dubbed the Forbes plan "nutty." Further debate about the flat tax seemed to end that night.)
During the current election cycle, Forbes is running again. But notably, the flat tax, while still part of his repertoire, is no longer the spearhead of his campaign. It has been replaced by a theme — "freedom." That is not a bad theme. It is certainly an admirable and sincere message from a free-marketeer like Forbes. Still, we are left to wonder why a candidate who embraces such a distinct set of ideas has opted to emphasize something as open-ended as freedom, rather than the specific steps he will take to enhance it when he is president. Does it make him a better candidate, or merely a less controversial one?
Reagan’s 1980 exceptionalism
AS WITH SO MANY THINGS in politics, Ronald Reagan proves to be an exception. His 1980 campaign was the last national campaign in which ideas overshadowed general sentiments. On that campaign, his chief strategist was Richard Wirthlin, perhaps the most influential Republican pollster of the past 20 years. But despite his deep faith in the ability to gauge public opinion, the campaign seemed to be directed more by Reagan’s core beliefs and policy preferences than by any set of numbers.
On the road, Reagan spoke to reporters at length about supply-side economics and his theory about the cause of inflation. In speeches he explained, quite elaborately, how the genesis of the recent energy crisis was to be found in Nixon’s wage and price control policy. His stories about "welfare queens," much maligned by the left, may have been oversimplified or even exaggerated. But they took dead aim at the perverse incentives of federal welfare policy. No politician had ever spoken like that. On the stump he stirred up crowds by suggesting, "if we can get the federal government out of our classrooms, maybe we can get God back in." On foreign policy, he promised "no more Taiwans."
Reagan’s uncompromising attack on status quo policy is exactly the sort of rhetoric that would make today’s strategists nervous. Indeed, it seemed as if Reagan deliberately pursued the controversies that politicians are now advised to avoid. In her book on the 1980 campaign, reporter Elizabeth Drew unwittingly touched on what may have been Reagan’s secret strength. "Reagan picks at things that are bothering people, making them angry," she wrote. "He talks in a soothing style, but he is not a soothing force."
Inside the Reagan campaign, the absence of Reagan’s soothing qualities bothered no one. In Wirthlin’s memos to Reagan, Ed Meese, and Bill Casey, we never read advice suggesting the candidate avoid the prickly specifics of his ideas. To be sure, the memos from Wirthlin are full of verbose advice about the need to demonstrate leadership and decisiveness. But what is most striking is how closely the memos focus on specific and sometimes quite complex policy matters. The campaign was deliberately structured around key policy issues, including inflation, unemployment, the energy crisis, and the recession — not exactly the vague, inspirational messages preferred by today’s pollsters.
Wirthlin never pretended to be a policy expert, but he understood the centrality of policy to Reagan’s quest for the presidency. And so, in an August 1980 memo, he worried that a detailed speech was needed to explain how tax cuts and defense spending could still lead to a balanced budget. He also suggested a foreign policy speech that would stay away from defense issues and lay the groundwork for a Reagan "peace plan." When Reagan was to travel to Mexico with his wife for three weeks of vacation in June 1980, Wirthlin suggested that a visit to President Lopez Portillo should be included to help promote the candidate’s "North American Accord" — the policy proposal that later became the NAFTA agreement.
Unlike the self-serving memos sent by today’s strategists, the advice of the Reagan team in 1980 was harnessed to a policy vision embraced by the candidate. The need for specificity was stressed repeatedly. (In one note, Bill Casey reminded his candidate always to give two justifications for every policy proposal.) There were no suggestions on how to shape a message for the middle class or convey a set of undefined values, no effort to advance policy purely to buttress some larger idea. And although Reagan, a former Democrat, was clearly aware of a swing group of ethnic, Southern, and working class Democrats to whom he might appeal, Wirthlin never offered schemes to pander to this constituency. Reagan’s proposals spoke for themselves and were an end in themselves.
To be sure, there were many factions in the Reagan campaign that tried to suppress his natural affinity for dramatic policy changes. Campaign manager John Sears sought to keep Reagan out of Iowa altogether and keep the candidate under wraps. And many of Reagan’s claims about economics and social policy were subjected to extravagant press efforts to expose them as wrongheaded or uninformed.
Reagan, however, seemed irrepressible. Much of his political life was devoted to challenging prevailing orthodoxies of both the left and the right. He cheerfully challenged William F. Buckley Jr. about the wisdom of the Panama Canal treaty in the late 1970s. In his 1976 effort to dethrone Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee, he quietly suggested that the Social Security system be reformed so that its funds could be invested in "the industrial might of the nation’s economy." Although never fleshed out, this early proposal to think of Social Security in terms of the private market was greeted by guffaws from mainstream Republican officials. "Wild-eyed socialism," Elliot Richardson dubbed it. "The best blueprint for backdoor socialism that I have ever heard," added Gerald Ford.
Reagan was undeterred. It was as if he understood that the purpose of public campaigning is to strike at the heart of conventional wisdom. Or perhaps Reagan relished criticism because he realized that specific policy positions, held fast and advocated with conviction, over time become the touchstone of national debate. Reagan’s policy advocacy on tax cuts, welfare, free trade, and defense continued to resonate long after the "themes" of his campaign had been forgotten. Everyone believed that "Morning in America" was an evocative theme for Reagan’s re-election. But its impact on the political culture pales compared to the idea of cutting taxes by 30 percent, the platform Reagan was running on in the late 1970s. So, too, with his characterization of the Soviet threat, his call for a balanced budget, his mockery of welfare’s perverse incentives, or his direct charge to Mikhail Gorbachev while standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Themes create a mood for the political moment, but policy, in the long run, frames a national conversation.
The long-term impact of policy has been seen on other campaigns, too. The details of Bill Clinton’s health care plan unveiled during his 1992 campaign, however superficial, ultimately had a greater influence on national debate than all the speeches about "the New Covenant" or "Putting People First." George Bush’s pledge of "no new taxes" — about as close to a policy statement as he made during the 1988 campaign — turned out to be far more significant to our national politics than the "kinder, gentler" nation he invoked during his acceptance speech.
Ideas make campaigns and shape the governments that emerge from them. The question that now faces the emerging national campaigns is whether the 2000 presidential race will be fought in the realm of ideas or in the theater of grand themes. Recent history tells us that the campaign strategists will opt for the latter. But recent history also suggests that that choice will lead to unmemorable and unsatisfying campaigns that tell us little about what our next president has in store for us.