No Panaceas

Friday, September 19, 2003
Celebrities and Generals: I have nothing against Wesley Clark, I just don't understand why he thinks, or anyone thinks, that he can get nominated for president. It seems that just about every four years we get a flavor-of-the-month "non-politician" who the media anoints as a potential super-candidate. This year it is Wesley Clark. Not long ago it was Colin Powell. Before Powell it was Ross Perot. Before Perot it was Lee Iacocca and so on.

As a people we have this weird jaded naivete thing going. We are jaded about all the politicians we know, but then we see someone we like for other reasons -- the movies they filmed, the armies they led, the money they made -- and we just assume that that person will be the perfect president. Inevitably it turns out that Mr. or Ms. Wonderful does not agree with us on every issue, says stupid things, makes mistakes, and after a couple of weeks pretty much looks just like the other candidates.

In a lower level race, like a race for Congress or maybe even governor, Clark might have a chance. But think about the types of voters who dominate the nomination process. Who will be voting in New Hampshire? Who will be caucusing in Iowa? Party activists. Ideologues. People who care and pay attention to politics and issues. Some of these people -- right this second -- might be attracted to a blank-slate war hero celebrity candidate. But that attraction will dissipate fast as Clark is forced to take stands, explain his lack of Democratic credentials, etc. A Schwarzenegger-type campaign will not work with this type of voter. Plus, the guy has never campaigned before and this is no place to figure out how to run a campaign. He will make mistakes and these mistakes will quickly get translated into: "He can't handle the big time." He will find the media hard to deal with now that he is a candidate. His campaign will have trouble getting organized unless he gets some incredibly talented and experienced people to run it for him. (If they are so talented and experienced wouldn't they already be working for someone else?)

To be sure, Clark is a new kind of creature. He combines military credentials with the celebrity shine gained from television. Or, perhaps more correctly, he used his military credentials to gain access to television which then made him a celebrity. That makes him a little different than war heroes past, including Eisenhower. But this goes only so far. Let's consider Eisenhower, since Eisenhower was the last "non-politician" to make it all the way. First, obviously Kosovo was no World War II. Eisenhower's fame, even without television, went way way beyond Clark's. Second, in retrospect Eisenhower was an extraordinary politician. That may be true of Clark, but chances are it is not. Third, after twenty years of Democratic rule the Republicans were desperate to win the White House. Desperate enough to hand the nomination over to a person with no Republican bona fides. The Democrats hate George Bush, and they really want to win the White House, but they are not yet to the point the Republicans were at in 1952. Fourth, it is a different world now. The type of party apparatus that handed the nomination to Eisenhower (and Grant and W.H. Harrison, etc) was far more centralized than it is today. Nominations cannot be won by cultivating party leaders (who care more about power than policy). Rather it has to be done in the trenches with those activists and ideologues I talked about earlier. For this same reason there is no way that Powell would have gotten the nomination from the Republicans in 2000. Powell was smart enough to figure that out....

What about Schwarzenegger in California? Here I think the dynamics are quite a bit different. First, you have the open field plurality voting scheme that makes it possible to win with far less than a majority. This gives novelty candidates like Schwarzenegger an edge. Second, if the election stays in October then the short campaign helps him. He does not have to buy name ID and the short race makes it less likely that he will say something foolish or, as bad, allow himself to be ideologically defined . Finally, the electorate is completely different. Ideologues on the left and right will not vote for Schwarzenegger. That is a given. But that still leaves a large group of independents and tepid Democrats and Republicans. These people will be far more prone to assuming the best about Schwarzenegger. This is why his current strategy of avoiding unscripted moments, like debates, and staying away from issue specifics makes very good sense. But it would be a hard stratagem to maintain until March.

Those housing prices are sure to go down now!: Crashing planes. Anthrax. Snipers. A massive snowstorm. Exploding manhole covers. The NFL turns the Mall into a mudpit. Now a hurricane.

Is this somehow an indicator of the 21st century? I have internet access but no water.