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.

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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

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