How to Win Elections: Integrity as a Political Ploy

In recent elections, those for the presidency in particular, it will be agreed, however sadly, liberals have not been doing very well. Identified as we are (and as we must be) with the Democratic Party, we have now had three resounding defeats in a row. And even before that the achievement was not brilliant: Jimmy Carter, to the extent that he could then be described as a liberal, owed much of his initial success to the Republican devastation resulting from Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Watergate. And before Carter there were George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. It is not an encouraging record, and especially as compared with the earlier days of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, when liberals of my generation took success in presidential elections for granted, the by no means reactionary Eisenhower years excepted.

I am not in these matters given to single-cause explanations. Personality, as in the case of F.D.R. and Kennedy, was undeniably a factor. Roosevelt was a more exciting presence than Walter Mondale, as Mondale would readily agree. Still, Roosevelt and his fireside chats would have gone nowhere without his program. No one will doubt that he needed the New Deal.

I've long been persuaded -- ever since 1952, when I campaigned with Stevenson and Ike promised to go to Korea -- that war and its memory is, in serious measure, our albatross. World War 11, the Korean, and Vietnam Wars were all fought under Democratic auspices. The Republicans, however belligerent their oratory, are identified only with that heroic descent on Grenada and, of course, the combat delegated to the Contras.

Partly this misfortune for the liberals is an historical accident; liberal Democratic Presidents have happened to be in office when the dark days came. But also there is fault. As we learned to our deep sorrow in the case of Vietnam, some liberals are impelled to show that they are muscular in a military way, and these can be more dangerously belligerent than conservatives, who are presumed to be tough and who do not stand similarly in fear of right-wing oratory. On the matter of the hostages, for example, Mr. Reagan's people sent a secret mission to Teheran armed only with a cake and a Bible. Our presumed co-religionists, in contrast, launched that appalling excursion into the Persian desert which ultimately secured Jimmy Carter's defeat. This is the difference, although I do not press too ardently the Carter-Brzezinski liberal credentials.

***

A further reason for our lack of success is the inescapable fact that liberals of my generation did much to keep our successors out of office. In our good years we owed a good deal to an electorate that largely consisted of impoverished, ethnically abused, insecure and frightened men and women. Since then, Social Security, unemployment compensation, trade unions, farm price and income supports, health insurance, civil rights legislation, and notably in these last years deposit insurance have significantly reduced much of their insecurity, fear, and outright distress. So has the macroeconomic commitment to full employment, reasonable price stability, and economic growth. The effect of these actions, all in their time bitterly condemned by conservatives, has been to make a great many Americans comfortable, content, reasonably secure. In consequence, and like most others so situated, they now vote conservative. If we could get them back to the tensions and anxieties of their parents or grandparents -- back to a time of no Social Security, no farm price supports, no Medicare and Medicaid, no bailing out of the banks and S&Ls, all combined with, as economists once saw it, the therapeutic effects of a substantial depression -- we would be returned to office with a huge majority at the very next election. Conservatives in our time condemn the welfare state in the abstract. They are very determined as regards cutting benefits for the voiceless poor. But they display an unseemly caution as regards cutting benefits for those who vote. And so, I suspect, it will remain. They will assert but not keep their faith.

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I come now to what I judge to be the decisive liberal error. That is the tendency for liberals at election time to desert their constituency and appear as poor imitations of the opposition. The problem begins and in some measure ends with the political strategist, sometimes called the political wizard. This is the person who takes a commanding role in the modem electoral process based on a presumed genius as to regional needs and strategies, ethnic appeal, and television with its commercials and its polls. He (or very rarely she) is the person who knows and unhesitantly says how "the American people really think." His presumed genius is pathologically available to the media in a time when elections are increasingly played out on television and in the newspapers as a spectator sport. No one is so at center stage as the seeming coach and manager for the contest; the modem candidate is merely a background player in the game.

Speaking out of personal experience and acquaintance going back to James Aloysius Farley, I am persuaded that the self-styled political expert is, in most respects and in most instances, a compulsively articulate idiot. His reputation, when separated from his unlimited and intellectually unsupported self-confidence, depends on his having been accidentally on the winning side in the last election and thus being qualified now to help lose the next.

The advice that this self-admitted wizard gives his candidate and his coworkers is always the same. It is based on the one thing in which he is unquestionably accomplished, namely simple arithmetic. Subtract votes from the other side, add them to your totals and, mirabile dictum, you have a majority

From this, accordingly, the strategy. You abandon your own supporters and their aspirations and desires -- they are deemed to be yours anyway -- and put on as impressive as possible an imitation of the opposing candidate and his program. There is always thought to be something clever, even deviously brilliant, about thus setting aside one's own beliefs and principles along with those of the candidate. The press responds wonderfully: "That fellow is certainly politically adept." The name of Machiavelli is invoked by the many who have never read him. Such praise then reinforces the political magician in his error and, needless to say, in his self-esteem, and, sadly, it also impresses the candidate.

In a half dozen campaigns in my lifetime I have been warned that as an academic type and thus with an unfortunate occupational commitment to beliefs, I must not anger the opposition. The political wizard has been there leaning over my typewriter reading what I wrote.

"You can't say that, Professor."

"It's what our man believes."

"I know, but there are a lot of people out there who don't go along."

"It's what our man stands for."

"I know, but this is politics. We can't further alienate people who are already against us."

It is more than a footnote on the nature of the political expert that although we have had many so described in the last twenty or thirty years, the name of not one is now remembered.

The disaster for the liberals inherent in this single-minded commitment to elementary arithmetic is all too clear. Supporters become disenchanted by the evident defection; the effort that would otherwise be forthcoming and that is so necessary to success is sacrificed. Gone is the enthusiasm that sweeps up others along the way.

But more important, this strategy means that the liberal candidate has lost any possible appeal to the half of the electorate that does not vote. The supreme achievement of the political strategist has been to show that there is no clearly evident choice between those who are running. This having been demonstrated, the wholly rational decision for the voter is to stay home from the polls. If the candidates are that much alike, why all the bother to vote? The great untapped liberal resource, the one all conservatives should fear, is the full half of the eligible population that in a thoughtful way now remains at home. We should not doubt the problem in getting out that vote; discussion of this is rich in banal optimism. But the absolute essential is to make voting seem worthwhile.

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Here too there is validation in history. The liberal candidates who have won in the last half century and a little more F.D.R. in his three campaigns as an incumbent, Truman, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson -- were those who stood firmly on their records and their credentials. Later liberals Hubert Humphrey and Michael Dukakis saw their campaigns revive when, too late, they set aside their advisers and returned to their liberal faith. George McGovern's campaign in 1972, it is true, stands as an evident exception, and it has made an impression on the mentally more disabled of the political experts second only to that made by Fritz Mondale's very sensible thought that he might have to raise taxes. (Some in the Dukakis circle a year ago made explicit their view that the Massachusetts governor was not like McGovern, a nice way of encouraging the millions who still thought well of George.) In fact, the Democrats in the sad year of 1972 were still carrying the burden of Vietnam, and McGovern had the further adverse baggage of the Eagleton vice-presidential disaster. There was also a problem in presenting the proposal for a negative income tax, one that Hubert Humphrey exploited ruthlessly in the California primary. Anyhow, as often said, one exception does not make a rule.

***

Giving way to the opposition is politically destructive in still another way. Liberalism in the United States is not a simple, one-dimensional thing, but, above all, it reflects, as conservatism does not, a concern for all people, the poor and excluded as well as the affluent and the in. And it accepts that the rescue of the excluded requires the effective, conscientious, and continuing intervention of the state. In contrast, American conservatism speaks powerfully for its own. The poor may be poor, but they need the spur of their own poverty. The rich may already be rich, but they always need a financial incentive to do more -- even Malcolm Forbes. The liberal who yields to these conservative cover stories is, with all else, regarded as both mentally susceptible and morally suspect. He is without firm beliefs and convictions; who wants such a President? His concession to the opposition shows that he is primarily interested in power and position and not in principle -- again, a person of no real character who thus advertises a strong personality defect.

This reputation then remains; accordingly, the candidate who yields to the opposition loses twice. Hubert Humphrey, the model liberal of my time, never recovered from the concessions he made to the warriors and Cold Warriors in 1968. Walter Mondale never quite won back the esteem he once enjoyed as an undeviating Minnesota ADA liberal. Michael Dukakis seems similarly to have been damaged, and, I might add, to my particular personal regret. Following a different path, Jimmy Carter has done much to redeem himself since leaving office by taking positions and undertaking assignments far more liberal than those pressed upon him by his dutifully conservative economic and foreign policy advisers while he was President. Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern, on the other hand, were never thought to have compromised; their own views were in command. In consequence, they emerged from defeat with influence and affection.

Liberals, on the whole, it should be noted, are stronger in defense of their beliefs when in congressional races than when in pursuit of the presidency. And they do much better in the former, as evidenced by the Democratic control (albeit sometimes nominal) of both houses. This is because being closer to the people, congressional candidates are held more closely accountable for their own views. And, a most important point, they are likely themselves to be more directly in charge of their own campaigns.

In the United States we are always a bit surprised when we see a convergence of principled political voice and political advantage. As with the covert operations of the CIA, we associate strength with duplicitous action. Nonetheless, integrity is surprisingly sound policy. We must not continue to believe that the articulate, self-confident, professional political deviant has somehow got things more in hand.

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