A political system in gridlock, conservatives and progressives at each others' throats, military threats looming in the Middle East: Welcome to the last days of the Roman Republic.
In 64 BC, Marcus Cicero, an idealistic outsider and the greatest orator ancient Rome produced, was running for consul — the highest office in the land — in a desperate bid to restore sanity to a corrupt and broken political system. It was a bitter contest to lead the most powerful government on earth, with accusations of incompetence, inconsistency and sexual misdeeds filling the air. Marcus wanted more than anything to save the republic from ruin, but he was hampered by his lowly birth and political naivete. To help his brother, the more worldly and pragmatic Quintus Cicero wrote a no-nonsense guide for winning elections that rings as true today as it did 2,000 years ago.
Quintus was in many ways the first political consultant, and his little-known book remains a mostly undiscovered treasure. For centuries his concise guide has been read only by Latin scholars, but it deserves a much wider audience. Some of Quintus' advice is as follows:
Promise everything to everybody. Except in the most extreme cases, candidates should say whatever the particular crowd of the day wants to hear. Tell conservatives you have always supported traditional values. Tell progressives you have consistently been on their side. The current crop of Republican candidates, especially Mitt Romney, knows this lesson well. In states such as Iowa and South Carolina, you must tailor your message to social conservatives. In New Hampshire and Florida, emphasize fiscal responsibility. But what do you do after the election and voters expect you to follow through on your promises? Quintus has an answer for that too — explain to all sides that circumstances beyond your control have intervened.
Build a wide base of support. Quintus Cicero urges his brother as an outsider in the political game to win over the various special-interest groups, local organizations and rural populations ignored by other candidates. He also stresses the importance of harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of young people, as Ron Paul has done effectively in the primaries.
Don't leave town. In the days of the Cicero brothers, this meant sticking close to Rome, the center of all political activity. For modern politicians, it means being on the ground pressing the flesh wherever the key voters are at the moment. There is no such thing as a day off for a serious candidate. Quintus would have told Newt Gingrich to take his wife on a cruise to the Greek isles after the election.
Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them. Quintus says every candidate should do an honest inventory of both the vulnerabilities and strengths of their rivals. Today, political consultants call it opposition research. Winning candidates do their best to distract voters from any positive aspects their opponents possess by emphasizing the negatives (Quintus would have loved television ads). Rumors of corruption are prime fodder. Sexual scandals are even better. Remember Herman Cain?
Give people hope. No one has applied this advice better than President Obama in the last election. As bitter as political contests are, even the most cynical voters want to believe in someone. Quintus says that if you give people a sense that you can make their world better, they will become your most devoted followers — at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down. But by then it won't matter because you will have already won.
And who won the election of 64 BC? Marcus Cicero by a landslide.
Philip Freeman is a professor of classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and the author of "How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians."