Saturday, November 15, 2003
The Two Towers
LA and DC. The residents of both are acutely aware of each other. Mutually attracted and repulsed; they are alternately fascinated by and condescending toward each other. And they're both so much alike.
It's difficult to live in either city. You can't travel to do business there-- or even visit for pleasure-- without getting sucked into the pervasive thrum of the living hive-mind. Even the air seems to pulsate and draw at your body as you pass through it.
How best to describe time spent there? For all their smartness and pretense at being cosmopolitan, they're both old-fashioned company towns. Every person you meet in the course of your day isn't in the business, of course. But they have at least one friend, relative, schoolmate or business partner who is or was or wants to be.
And the currencies, in both cities, are relationships and information. What you know-- and who you know-- determines what you can accomplish. The bit of knowledge contained in an offhand remark, if it is overheard and then transmitted to the right person at the right time, can provide a material advantage in the process of constructing a deal.
Most of the effort expended during the making of a movie is politicking-- conferences, relationship-building, negotiating and intrigues. Much of what we see happening in politics today is theatrics-- playing to national audiences to try to win them.
Neither city has benefitted from adopting the other's techniques.
Friday, November 14, 2003
Insightful profiles of political pros are rare. To write it, you need enough technical knowledge to understand how the processes work, and enough good judgement to assess the issues. And if you have those skills, you can make a lot more money running campaigns-- or dealing out sound bites as a talking head on TV.
So enjoy this profile of the man behind John Kerry's throne-- Bob Shrum. David Halbfinger does a little bit of tiptoeing around the nitty-gritty, but he nails almost every topic he addresses. Let me fill in the one he ducked: Shrum is a second-tier stratregist. Maybe third tier.
There's an immense difference in ability between someone who can win Senate seats and one who can win a presidential nomination and one who can witn the presidency. If you're a football fan, it's like the difference between a quarterback coach, an offensive coordinator and a head coach.
Winning a senate race requires a narrow focus. You need in-depth knowledge of the voters, media and key issues in your state. You've got to be able to relate to the candidate and family effectively and schedule their travel plans. You also need enough managerial ability to oversee the candidate's ongoing politcal operation,
To win a presidential nomination, you have to be able to play well on a much broader canvas. You have to be able to craft a message that plays well in 10-15 states and build an organization (from scratch) that can run that many races well. Managing the candidate's time-- knowing which state he needs to be in at any given moment and not buring him out--is much more diffiicult.
To win the presidency, you need to be able to play well in 25-35 states. And that's mostly resource management-- time, money and staff:
1. You have to win your base (the states that favor anyone from your party) you while spending as little as possible.
2. You need to win at least some of the battlefield states (the ones where you're evenly matched), without committing too much of your resources.
3. You must mount cost-effective challenges in your opponent's base. You're not hoping to win-- you're just trying to force him to spend additional resources to hold a state that he expected to win handily.
To win a senate seat, you have to fight one all-or-nothing battle. And since you can run for re-election more than once, there's a good reason to win by a landslide-- you can scare potential competitors off.
In a presidential race, it doesn't matter if you win a state by one vote or one million. In fact, your goal is to win while spending as little as possible, so you have more money to spend in other races.
In a primary campaign, you don't have to fight as many battles-- and since most states vote at different times, you get to shuffle resources from spot to spot and go back to raise more money. In the general, your timing and your spending has to be perfect.
The difference between the guy who wins senate seats and the guy who wins the primaries and the one who wins it all: The one who can win senate seats will spend 9% of his budget and 20 days campaigning in his home state. The one who'll win the primaries will spend 7% and 15 days. The one who wins it all spends 3% and 9 days.
Bob Shrum has never managed a winning presidential campaign. He's never even managed a successful primary campaign (Kennedy in 1980, Gephardt in 1988, Bob Kerry in 1992).
Shrum was senior staff on Gore 2000--arguably the worst-run campaign in modern history. (Envision George H.W. Bush trying to distance himself from Ronald Reagan out of concern that Reagan's problems with Iran-Contra would rub off on him.) When he joined the staff of one of the best-run campaigns in modern history-- Jimmy Carter in 1976-- he quit after 1o days, blasting both the candidate and his staff.
Shrum does have, the profile notes, a solid record getting senators elected. To date, it notes, he has played critical roles in the successful campaigns of Robert Torricelli, Jon Corzine, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.
That record would be a lot more impressive if those four guys didn't hail from exactly two states (New Jersey and Massachusetts) that are both strongly Democratic and both located in the Northeastern United States.
Shrum does have some other credits (John Edwards, 1998), but they're always in races where it's not clear exactly how big his role was. He's got a number of big-ticket losses to offset them.
My impression? In the business Shrum is in, you are your record. His record isn't impressive. And the personality of all his campaigns-- the infighting and lack of organization-- make you wonder if the similarities are accidental.
Shrum is a pretty good speechwriter (if you want to sound Kennedyesque, he's terrific) but I wouldn't let him anywhere near one of my candidates. And I'll get to what he does to candidates tomorrow.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Don't Do As I Say
Josh Marshall is one of the brightest Washington-based reporters around. What he understands about policy is considerable. What he doesn't know about campaigns is a lot.
Two weeks ago, he suggested that Wesley Clark could revive his campaign by cleaning house. I sent him a fairly shirty e-mail telling him that (a) if you fire one person, their buddies often quit and (b) a firing openly acknowledges that something is wrong.
The press loves to pick at a dying campaign-- to write analyses that ask "what's wrong with these jokers?" But due to concerns about bias, editors at non-wingnut papers refuse to allow reporters to write those stories unless the piece writer can be based on an event that is public record. Like a firing.
So when John Kerry takes Josh's advice-- and people walk in protest-- Josh asks "What's wrong with this campaign?"
Monday, November 10, 2003
All Politics is Local
"What do you make of the results in Mississippi and Kentucky?" Based on my long experience in politics and my keen analytical skills, I believe it means that there will be Republic governors in those states next year.
Unlike most pundits or political hacks, I'm skeptical about drawing conclusions from off-year elections-- especially to assess a president's standing. There's simply too much chance that some hot-button local issue-- which is a big hairy deal locally or regionally, but didn't fly high enough to hit the national media's radar-- played a huge, undocumented part in the results. I was reminded of that again this weekend.
I grew up just outside Cleveland; this year, the region had arguably the most controversial ballot initiative outside California. The city of Lakewood wanted to put an upscale shopping center in a neighborhood on its western border. After meeting resistance from the property owners, they placed an initiative on the ballot that would have empowered city council to use public funding and eminent domain to purchase homes
The story got all kinds of coverage (you might have seen it on 60 Minutes) and outsiders of every stripe poked their heads into the race. The initiative lost by 39 votes out of 16,000 votes cast; the mayor (who pushed the issue strongly) lost her race for re-election 54%-46%. Clearly this result was a triumph (to some degree) for conservative/libertarian values, right? A victory for property rights and the individual over big government and tax and spend, no?
Wrong. These results had very little to do with property rights, but a lot to do with homophobia. Here's what really went down.
The city of Lakewood is politically split. At one time, it was a solidly conservative place. But, because it has lots of apartment complexes and duplexes, it has a growing percentage of gay residents. According to one study (god knows how they measure this sort of stuff), Lakewood has, on a per-capita basis, the third-highest percentage of gay residents in the country. There is, as a result, a very uneasy truce, with sporadic flareups.
In 2000, for example, Lakewood City Council defeated a resolution to provide spousal health benefits to domestic partners, regardless of gender. Tempers ran pretty high on that one, and Council passed an ordinance that made it a crime to harass people based on their sexual preference later that year. The mayor admitted it was done partly to reach out to the gay community.
In June of 2003-- before the West End idea really heated up-- Lakewood City Council passed a resolution that proclaiming June to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. The resolution specified that the "Rainbow Pride" flag was to be flown on the same flagpole as the U.S. flag and the flag of the State of Ohio.
When they did that, people went apeshit. One guy tore down the flag; groups stormed City Hall and held protests for two weeks. The mayor refused to take down the flag, but did agree to install a second flagpole to fly it on.
The mayor and five of seven council seats were up for election this year. In Ward 3, the council president--who voted against gay interests all four times-- was challenged by an openly gay activist. In Ward 4, the council member who supported gay interests most strongly retired--and a second openly gay candidate declared for her seat. As a result, the anti-gay forces fought a "Take No Prisoners" campaign, culminating in a military-style "Get Out The Vote" drive.
Turnout in Cuyahoga County was 37% this year. Turnout in Lakewood was 20% higher. Both gay candidates got stomped (57%-42 and 56%-44), and the mayor (who was perceived as being the force behind the Rainbow Flag ordinance) lost 54%-46. And since people who oppose gay rights tend to be conservative--and conservatives tend to be opposed to be confiscation of property--they voted "No" on the West End initiative and sunk it.
Don't buy that interpretation? Then look at the results. According to this profile, four candidates said they openly opposed the West End initiative, and would not support any eminent domain legislation if elected. All four candidates lost their races-- their totals were 31%, 35%, 42% and 44%.
Still not convinced? All three candidates who vocally supported the "Rainbow Flag" vote lost. Two of the three opposed the West End initiative. The candidate who supported the West End initiative (the Mayor) got the highest vote total-- 46%. The candidates in Wards 3 and 4 got 42% and 44%.
So what does all this have to do with Kentucky and Mississippi? What it means is that when the media tells you that the results appear to show strong support for W., that they probably don't know what they're talking about. The media is always sloppy and it ususlly misses stuff that any reasonably intelligent observer should catch. The profile of the Lakewood council races--written a week before election day--noted that two candidates were gay, but never refererred to the furor over the "Rainbow Flag" ordinance. Their analysis of the results-- written days later--didn't mention the word 'gay' even once.
I can't tell you what happened in Kentucky or Mississippi, because I don't have family or friends there. But if you can find a blog that deals with local issues in those states, I'll bet it will mention 2-3 things that have little or nothing to do with W., but a whole hell of a lot to do with the turnout or the mood of the voters in the region.
As Tip O'Neill once said, all politics is local. It's as true today as it was then.