Getting a degree in political nuts and bolts
THE campaign was in its last week. The candidate was in trouble. A United States Senate seat was at stake. And so the staff of the Republican challenger approached the White House. Would President Reagan do a testimonial? Mr. Reagan rarely provides endorsements of this kind. But this case proved to be an exception.Skip to next paragraph
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``I think he did it when we caught his advisers unawares,'' Doug Bailey, the candidate's campaign consultant, told a recent assemblage. ``Most of the people he's endorsing in one manner or another he's never heard of.''
Mr. Bailey is a polished politico with a PhD and a laconic sense of humor, who has counted among his clients such Republican eminences as Howard Baker Jr., the former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff.
Bailey was telling his campaign war stories to a class at the Graduate School of Political Management, which is based at Baruch College in New York and is just finishing its first year.
As political campaigns have mimicked commercial marketing in their sophistication and complexity, the kitchen-table volunteers of yore have given way to full-time professionals who migrate from one candidate to another with each passing season. Fledgling pols used to learn their trade by stuffing envelopes or driving candidates to events and slowly working their way up the ladder. But between polling, focus groups, and multimillion-dollar media buys, it's all become so arcane that many now consider formal training necessary.
Both parties offer training in the new electoral arts for prospective candidates; there's even a Congressional Management Foundation in Washington to help newly elected congressmen run their shows. The Graduate School in New York is the first to offer a degree program for aspiring young politicos such as Bill Cross, the legal adviser for Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign.
As a case study, Bailey's course dealt with the 1984 Senate race in Michigan between Jack Lousma, a former astronaut and the Republican challenger (who received the Reagan endorsement), and Carl Levin, the Democratic incumbent. But more broadly, it offered a glimpse at the kind of warfare that is driving the current presidential campaigns. Its tone - clinical, dispassionate, assessing issues in terms of their perceptual throw-weights - probably mirrored closely the kinds of discussions now occurring in the Bush and Dukakis camps, and in Senate and congressional races as well.
In today's paid media campaigns, Step 1 is generally an ``ID'' ad, which wraps the candidate in symbols of home, family, country, and honest tillage of the soil. In the Michigan scenario, Senator Levin's dilemma is to identify himself as a Democrat - Michigan's auto workers and others are still loyal to the party - but to distance himself from Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate, who has called for a tax increase.
One student suggests that Mr. Levin embraced instead Willie Hernandez, the Detroit Tiger relief pitcher who was carrying the team to the World Series that fall. The suggestion is facetious, but Levin's ``ID'' ad did indeed show him wearing a Tigers' cap.
After the ``ID'' phase - and sometimes as part of it - the candidate has to ``inoculate'' himself, as the campaign pros put it, against probable attacks. For example, Levin has to ``innoculate'' himself on the tax issue; Michigan had been in the throes of a tax revolt, and liberal Democrats like him are suspect. He also has to inoculate himself against the ``soft-on-defense'' tag. Levin eventually did this through ads touting the defense contracts he had ostensibly brought to the state, and by blasting away at $500 Pentagon wrenches.
As the discussion broadens, Bailey notes that most of the suggestions for Levin concern defending his own record.
``Incumbents almost always get themselves into a box,'' Bailey tells the class. ``They worry about how they will be attacked. What you are describing is not a campaign but a holding action.''