The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008
The following is from "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," by John F. Harris and Mark Halperin. The book is being published this month by Random House.
The collection of winners on that Little Rock stage was the most striking image from the Clinton Library opening. But also in attendance, sitting in the crowd, was a pair of distinguished losers.
Al Gore and John Kerry had never been close, despite the many years they served together in Washington. Now they shared a special bond. Both had been beaten by a man they believed to be less articulate, less capable, less experienced, less virtuous, less worthy, and less intelligent than they. Both had been preparing for the presidency since they were young men, spurred not just by ambition, but by colleagues, friends, and mentors who for a generation had been anticipating their eventual candidacies. Gore and Kerry long had stood out as quintessential strivers, even among fellow senators. Now they looked up through the rain at a man whom almost no one had regarded as presidential material until a couple of years before he got the job. Neither Gore nor Kerry seemed to grasp the reasons for what both considered a cruel hoax of history.
Gore had had four years to contemplate his loss, but for Kerry, the sting of defeat was still fresh that morning. An instinctually competitive man, he had served notice immediately after Election Day that he was eager to try again for the presidency in 2008. To his face, Kerry got handshakes, praise for a race well run, and condolences that the better man had not won. Behind his back, in Little Rock hotel bars filled with visiting Democrats, the notion of Kerry running again for president was greeted with derision and mockery, even by people who two weeks earlier had been on his payroll.
If this were a book about all the reasons John Kerry lost the 2004 election, it would be too heavy to hold. John Kerry was beaten by John Kerry, who never overcame the limitations of his diffident personality. He was beaten by George W. Bush, who was by far the savvier politician. Deep thinkers might say Kerry was beaten by history, since Democrats for nearly forty years had been at a stark disadvantage when national security was the dominant issue in voters' minds. Here is another nominee for who beat John Forbes Kerry: Matthew Drudge.
If you are reading this book, you probably know who Matt Drudge is. It is a guarantee that most of the reporters, editors, producers, and talk show bookers who serve up the daily national buffet of news recently have checked out his eponymous website, and that www.drudgereport.com is bookmarked on their computers. That is one reason Drudge is the single most influential purveyor of information about American politics.
Drudge, with his droll Dickensian name, was not the only media or political agent whose actions led to John Kerry's defeat. But his role placed him at the center of the game -- a New Media World Order in which Drudge was the most potent player in the process and a personification of the dynamics that did Kerry in. Drudge and his ilk made Kerry toxic -- and unelectable.
Toxicity is the new defining trait of modern American politics. The toxins themselves are not new. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton initially clashed like gentlemen (albeit venomously) over the limits of federal power and the future of the economy, but when news of Hamilton's saucy mistress Maria Reynolds surfaced, thanks to nonpartisan busybody James Callender, Jefferson was content to let the accusatory pamphlets fly.
Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory -- all are native flowers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The first was the disintegration of editorial filters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena. The New Media -- talk radio, cable television, Internet websites -- for the most part never had these editorial filters. Many of its leading voices, Drudge among them, are openly contemptuous of the very idea. The Old Media, faced with filter-free competition, responded by loosening or discarding its own.
This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically. The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of filters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were sitting on the stage in Little Rock because they learned to navigate the Freak Show -- and even to use it to their advantage. Al Gore and John Kerry were sitting in the audience because they did not. Were it not for the Freak Show, Kerry's title today likely would be President of the United States. Instead Kerry's title is Case Study.
Kerry's 2004 presidential bid began in earnest, though unofficially, days after the 2002 midterm congressional elections. These had been a disaster for Democrats. Bush, invoking his party's credentials on national security, and revving up a turnout machine run from the White House by Karl Rove, led the Republicans to House and Senate gains. But the Massachusetts senator believed Bush might yet be vulnerable in his own reelection. What was needed was a way to make plain to voters what seemed painfully obvious to Kerry: Bush was an incompetent president. Kerry hired a campaign manager, veteran Capitol Hill operative Jim Jordan, who set out with consultant Bob Shrum and a wide circle of Kerry advisers to take inventory of the Democrat's strengths and vulnerabilities. They might have been wise to start with his hair.