Maybe democracy was easier in Ancient Greece, where they invented it – there you had a small homogeneous society and voting was limited, limited to the few adult males who really mattered and no one else, with no mass media, and thus no highly-paid media consultants, and with no primary system and caucuses and all that, and no snazzy campaign advertising of course. Those who thought they should lead argued a bit with others who thought otherwise, wanting themselves to lead, and everyone voted. And that was that. But we are a nation of over three hundred million people, stretched across four time zones, with Alaska way up north on its own and Hawaii way out there in the middle of the Pacific. Democracy is not so easy for us. It can’t be face-to-face in the agora, where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. Even with Facebook and Twitter and texting, you can’t scale that up for who we are now. So we end up voting for those we really don’t know at all, pretending we know them – pretending with their help of course, as for all the talk about policy and principles, most of the work in getting elected to national office seems to be about creating a likely and likable persona.
And it’s more than likability. You need a narrative, a compelling back-story. And then the person becomes sort of the myth of the person – the fearless risk-it-all maverick fighter pilot (McCain) – the elemental and fierce Momma Grizzly protecting her cubs (Palin) – the smart-as-a-whip but decent and courteous man who simply gets things done (Obama) – or the man with the great hair and square jaw who really looks like he should be president (Romney). Other narratives have been failing – the laconic long tall Texan who says little and doesn’t much think about things but just does what his gut tells him to do (Bush) had a limited shelf life. Rick Perry is now having trouble with that. And Hillary Clinton’s ultra-competent strong woman who always knows what to do, and doesn’t have any tolerance for nonsense and whining, didn’t fly. Folks must have thought of their own exasperated mom on a bad day. And Michele Bachmann’s wild-eyed outraged-at-what-no-one-else-can-see persona was always a nonstarter. People worried that wasn’t a persona at all – that might actually be her, the real Bachmann, always seeing things that actually weren’t there at all. Being habitually delusional is not a recommendation for the most important job in the world.
As for the rest, it’s all a work in progress. Herman Cain has to work pizza into the narrative, somehow. And long ago, if you remember, Al Gore had no real narrative at all. That’s deadly. Knowledgeable and competent and experienced – that’s not the narrative of a devastatingly cool persona, that’s a list. And people don’t vote for lists. But it was close. Gore won the popular vote with the votes of those who were appalled by the persona presented to them – the laconic gut-instinct and none-too-bright Texan. Gore had no ardent fans. He didn’t light up any room he ever entered. But at least he wouldn’t burn down the house.
But it didn’t matter. The Supreme Court decided that one. On the other hand, Gore might have won outright had he had a compelling narrative, a back-story like Bill Clinton’s Man from Hope (Arkansas) – a cool persona – the myth of the person and not the person himself.
But how do you get one of those? That’s the problem. And that leads to the problem of political epistemology. Yes, epistemology is that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge – not so much with what we know, but with how we know what we think we know. And in politics the question is how people come to know what they think they know about this candidate or that. What is the nature of knowledge – in this case what we think is personal knowledge of the candidate? Assume that people don’t really care all that much about specific policy positions and abstract principles – easy enough if you just look around – and that they simply vote for the more compelling person. But they will never know the actual person – they’ll just know the carefully constructed persona. And that is where Gore needed an expert in political epistemology – someone who understands the processes by which people come to know what they think they know.
Okay, Gore didn’t have a compelling back-story. He had been an extremely competent technocrat and career politician, from a family of famous career politicians. That’s not much to work with. But there’s usually not much to work with. Eisenhower had D-Day and Kennedy had PT-109 and McCain had been a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for all those years, but most everyone else seeking the presidency has to build their compelling political-personal persona from scratch, starting late. And that means getting out in front of the public and being charming, or mysterious, or intimidating – whatever your consultants tell you is necessary – and getting out there often and widely, with interviews and photo-ops, and with participating in every debate available, so people can get a sense of just how cool you really are. Clinton played sax on that one late-night show and talked about his boxer shorts on MTV – and the Leno show is good, and Stewart and Colbert are even better. Hell, Nixon even appeared on Laugh-In. Sock it to me? You can build the necessary persona with that.
But that’s dangerous. Sarah Palin found that out. Katie Couric asked her what she read, and wouldn’t be stopped by Palin’s non-answer. Only People Magazine – Palin knew she couldn’t say that. But it seems she had nothing else. And then there was her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, who asked Palin about the Bush doctrine – waging full-scale preemptive war on any nation, anywhere, which might pose a threat sometime in the future even if they pose no real threat now – and she has no idea what Gibson was talking about. And from then on Palin just stopped doing interviews – except on Fox News – as she came up with a new brilliant narrative. The problem was and is and will always be the Lamestream Media and their useless gotcha questions. She’d have none of that. Everyone knew what she thought and what she supported and what she knew was awful – and if they didn’t, or needed clarification, it would be out there on her Facebook page. And had she run for president, there would have been no interviews at all. She’d explain nothing, as she’d already said what she had to say – all of it. She wouldn’t let the lame press play gotcha with her. And there’d probably would have been no debates. There would just have been more of the same.
And that was a pretty good move. She positioned herself as pure and honest and far above the petty carping press, always trying to tear her down, and always trying to tear America down, if you thought about it. Well, she exempted Fox news from that assessment. In any event, those initial interviews had been lemons, but she made her lemonade. And that noble-victim thing has served her well ever since. Her decision not to run for president this time, however, may have been based on a realization that campaigning only by saying she’d said more than enough already might not work very well. You might look foolish, or arrogant, or scared – or just dumb and unaware. You can be trapped by the persona you create. Any guy who has picked up a woman in a bar knows this.
But Sarah Palin should have advised Rick Perry, considering this – during a recent Bill O’Reilly interview on Fox News, Perry said that he finds the debate formats only geared toward promoting a fight among Republicans., and he’ll show up for the next one, but after that, he might just decide to skip them all.
And there is this in the Wall Street Journal:
Rick Perry saw his poll numbers swoon after a series of shaky debate performances in September. Now his campaign says the Texas governor may get a lot more selective, potentially skipping some of the jousting contests between now and when voting for the Republican presidential nomination starts in early January.
“We are going to evaluate each debate as it comes and take each one on its own merits,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, adding that for now, Mr. Perry is confirmed only for the next GOP debate, set for Michigan Nov. 9th. At least five more debates are now scheduled between the Michigan contest and the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3rd.
The campaign argues that with less than 10 weeks to go before the first votes fly, the debates devour too much time for travel and preparation. “The primaries are right [around] the corner and there is simply more to do than there is time to do it,” Mr. Miner said.
Okay, that’s a second justification. Not only are the debates bad for the party, Perry really doesn’t have time for such nonsense. He’s busy. Let the idle folks, with nothing better to do, go talk with each other.
But the very conservative Ed Morrissey is not impressed:
Don’t forget that the Heritage/AEI debate will focus exclusively on foreign policy, and will be broadcast by CNN. If Perry doesn’t take part in that debate, what will that say about his readiness to discuss those issues?
It doesn’t get much better in December, where the GOP will have four debates. The first is in Arizona on CNN (December 1st), but the next three are in … Iowa, which is where the primaries-around-the-corner start. Does he blow off one or more of those debates? If so, would anyone in Iowa take him seriously – and what exactly would Perry’s path to the nomination be if he comes in lower than, say, second place in Iowa?
Morrissey is just puzzled:
Factor in his falling poll numbers, and a decision to back away from debates seems even more curious. Perry needs some serious face time to re-energize his campaign, and he’s not going to get that by pulling a Jon Huntsman and staying off the stage. If he wants to make a point about protesting the number of debates that have been scheduled, that might be worth protesting – except that he’s attended fewer debates than almost everyone else on stage at this point, and his campaign isn’t making that case, at least not at the moment.
Morrissey says that this looks like a strategy designed to keep Perry from doing more damage to himself – and argues that won’t impress many primary voters:
In order to fight for conservative principles, one has to first show up to the fight.
Heck, even Sarah Palin knows that, as Andrew Sullivan notes:
But when you can bypass any forum like this and sell yourself directly in carefully controlled ads and speeches, that’s a pretty big temptation. Remember you-know-who?
Sullivan is not talking about Voldemort, and points to Conor Friedersdorf arguing here that this shows that Perry really isn’t fit to be president:
This announcement is an admission that the Texas governor doesn’t even expect he can improve over time.
Of course, it isn’t actually essential that a president be a good debater, but it is essential that he has a deep grasp of numerous issues, is a quick study, and can use the bully pulpit to good effect.
As it happens, these are the very things at which Perry is failing miserably. Would you send him to meet with world leaders? To address the press corps of foreign nations on trips? To quickly understand the issues at play in a complex and unexpected crisis? To do Town Hall meetings where he persuades the American people to rally behind his policy initiatives?
The guy isn’t even quick enough on his feet to get off a one liner about Mitt Romney’s tendency to flip flop. How would he handle a matter for which he wasn’t prepared?
And Kevin Drum adds this:
Perry’s not hiding from anything. He’s just choosing to stay off national TV because it makes his dimness a little too painfully obvious to voters who are trying to choose a leader of the free world. Better to focus instead on what he’s best at: attack ads and laughably flimsy policy proposals.
Well, that is another way to establish a possibly compelling persona. But we also think we know candidates by what they choose not to do. Even Sarah Palin realized that. This business of creating your own somewhat mythic version of yourself – an avatar, really – is tricky. But this isn’t face-to-face in the agora in Ancient Greece. All people know and actually vote for is the avatar. That’s all we have.