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.

``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.''

``It is the incumbent's job as well as the challenger's to define a vision of the future. If the incumbent solves the problem how to run a successful campaign, he does it that way.''

Levin faces another problem, a speaking style that is not exactly electrifying. Jill Buckley, a well-known Democratic consultant, solved this problem craftily, through generous use of voice-overs while Levin's image was on the screen. The candidate himself did very little talking.

``She got you to believe Levin was in these spots,'' Bailey tells the class. ``That is not criticism. That is admiration.''

Mr. Lousma, by contrast, is a handsome and effective Rotary Club-style speaker. But from a consultant's standpoint, he is less amenable to direction than was Levin. A conservative, Lousma needs to inoculate himself against the ``militaristic'' tag. A student suggests one of those one-world satellite shots from space.

More than anything, Lousma needs to bathe himself in Reagan's glow. One student suggests that the President confer upon the candidate some honor. ``It could be arranged,'' he says. ``Just have Reagan meet with him and give him a medal.''

Precocious cynicism, but on the mark. That fall, the enterprising campaign manager for one Democratic senator invented a ``Mr. Energy'' award for his boss to receive to boost his credentials with energy-industry contributors.

Later the discussion turns to standards of truthfulness in campaign ads.

One Lousma ad claimed, for example, that Levin had voted for higher taxes ``62 times.'' An alert student observes that many of those were probably procedural votes on the same bills. Bailey concedes the point. As Lousma's consultant he had helped design the ads. But he showed a wry detachment throughout the discussion. He's been around the track many times. You win some, you lose some.

Students jumped all over Bailey for another Lousma ad, claiming that Levin was ``always for higher taxes.'' ``Isn't there a problem with a straight-out lie?'' one student asked sardonically.

``We wanted to provoke a fight over that [tax] question,'' Bailey explained in a tone that suggested his was not the only counsel considered on the matter. ``If the fight in the campaign is over taxes, we are going to win that election.''

``If you need to be technically, absolutely accurate in every [TV] spot,'' he added, ``you'll never put a spot on the air.''

The school has come in for its share of controversy. A recent cover story in The New Republic magazine blasted it as a training ground for amoral political operatives that aimed mainly to confer upon them the status of ``professionals.''

Students say the story raised some valid questions. There is concern over the sophistication of today's campaigns. ``Politics is a far more complicated business than it was,'' Bailey says. ``I'm not at all sure it's been good for politics.''

But many students have been active in campaigns before. They say the high-tech complexity is there, for better or worse.

A number are not seeking a fast track to big-buck consulting, but rather to advance what they consider to be worthy causes in the political arena. Pam Allison once worked as a nurse in Tanzania and is now active in behalf of hunger and homelessness issues in New Jersey. ``These are not just human-services issues,'' she explains. ``I came to see the political barriers as just as substantial.''

Those who took strongest exception to the New Republic article were black students, for whom the school represents a point of entry into a field that has been closed to their race. For blacks, ``there is no old-boy network to get you jobs,'' says Geoffry Garfield, who recently helped Detroit businessman Thomas Barrow lead a successful ballot campaign against a lottery there. ``I'm only in this to empower the black community.''

``You can't raise money if you can't convince donors you know what you are doing,'' adds Dennis Johnson, who teaches high school in New York City.

(By the way, Levin won the '84 race. The clinching issue was not war or taxes, but that Lousma's son owned a Toyota.)

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