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Take Politics Back From the Campaign Consultants : Elections: When winning is everything, issues and governance take a back seat--voters know it and are tuning out.

August 19, 1990|Richard Moe | Richard Moe, a partner in the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell in Washington, has been active in Democratic politics since 1960

WASHINGTON — If the strategies and tactics used in recent national and state elections are any indication, we have seen the future of American politics--and it does not work. Impossible promises, distortions of candidates' records and accusations of personal misdeeds increasingly smother discussion of the issues. The results: dismal voter turnout, increasing alienation from government, policy paralysis. U.S. politics continues its long, steady decline.


Because political consultants disconnected from government dominate the campaigns, the need for more and more money is never sated and the media acquiesce to it all.

The emergence of a system in which the ability to deal with the politics of our concerns is more important than the ability to deal with the concerns themselves is one of the most troubling developments. Public issues are seen through the prism of political survival by increasingly risk-averse officials.

The professionalization of politics has contributed much to this evolution. The business of politics has become just that--a business. During the past decade, a talented and growing group of professional pollsters, media experts and fund-raisers have come to dominate the tone and much of the substance of political campaigns. Electoral success is pursued for its own sake, increasingly unrelated to its effect on public policy.

For the first time, campaign decisions are being made by a group of paid consultants who have no institutional accountability. Their judgments often determine the kind of government we get. Yet their primary interest is not government. It is winning elections.

While most political consultants maintain that they care about the government their campaigns produce, few expect to deal personally with its consequences. They will be on the next campaign when the reckoning comes. Even those who prefer to travel a higher road believe they must react to an opponent's win-at-any-cost mentality, thereby perpetuating it.

As a result, too many campaigns are at odds with a candidate's ability to govern once elected. Candidates are advised to duck all controversy, which usually means sidestepping substance. It almost always means avoiding bold positions on divisive issues.

Indeed, campaigns are seldom forums for debating issues, especially in close contests where television dominates. They focus on what consultants like to call values--patriotism--or on "wedge" issues--the death penalty. The closest many races come to relevant issues is when one candidate accuses another of being soft on crime, weak on defense or unreliable on taxes.

Although many candidates rightly insist they discuss serious issues, they usually don't do so where it matters--on paid TV commercials. These are increasingly devoted to pushing hot-button issues, sugarcoating the candidate's resume or trashing his opposition. Increasingly, candidates launch a preemptive strike to "drive up the negative" before rivals established a positive identification in voters' minds.

Intractable problems--budget deficits, for example--tempt candidates to accept their consultants' advice to stick to safe subjects. The vastly improved technologies of electoral research--focus groups, tracking polls, voter targeting--often make the temptation irresistible. A candidate's pollster can tell him precisely which voters are likely to react negatively to which policy initiative. His media adviser can predict how his opponent will target those voters with a withering 30-second spot to capitalize on a perceived vulnerability.

Having perfected these tools to appeal to public opinion, the political community has become hostage to them. Campaigns thus usually pander to public opinion rather than lead it. This is the politics of risk avoidance.

It is principally designed to appeal to the electorate's lowest common denominator--and it sells most people short. Voters know they face difficult public problems. They know they are being manipulated, their intelligence insulted. Accordingly, more and more tune out.

Consultants respond by asserting they are only agents, that the big decisions are made by the candidates. That should be true. Candidates are responsible for their campaigns.

But insecure or desperate candidates often delegate major authority to their consultants. Consultants themselves tell stories of candidates who say, "I've decided to run. Now what do I do? What should I say?" Too many candidates now defer to consultants much the way primitives bowed to witch doctors.

Candidates' desire to avoid tough policy choices in their campaigns inevitably extends to the White House and the Congress. Governance has become part of an essentially permanent campaign. This is the natural result of taking proved political skills and technologies--especially public opinion polling--into the halls of government where an excessive reliance on them reinforces an already existing aversion to controversy.

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