Friday, September 05, 2008
A question that shows up a lot in my email box is: Why bother?
Sarah Palin is the vice presidential nominee of the Republican party. That's a fact. The ticket can now only win or lose. I want the ticket to win. So why not shut up and get with the program?
And indeed this topic is in many ways exhausting itself.
Yet there ways in which it remains intensely relevant - and may well be becoming increasingly relevant.
Did you happen to see this clip featuring Jay Carney of Time and Nicole Wallace of the McCain campaign? If not, do please click - it's very short. Carney asks when Palin will take questions from the press. Wallace dismisses the idea. "Who cares?" she answers.
So here's why I care.
A question I am often asked when I give talks or lectures is: Why did the Bush communication effort end so badly? How did an administration that once commanded such public support end by losing all ability to make its case?
My answer is that the ultimate failure was encoded into the initial success. The president's communication team - of which Nicole Wallace was an important part - shared the same disdain of "elites" that permeates so much of my pro-Palin correspondence. It was not just the media elite that they disregarded. (Who could blame them for that?) It was the policy elite too. When the president wished to advocate, eg a tax cut, he did not argue his case before the Detroit Economic Club or send a surrogate to Jackson Hole. He made a rally speech before cheering supporters. That made for effective soundbites and exciting images. But it abdicated any effort to make an argument that could convince people who were not predisposed to be convinced.
At first, this abdication did not much matter. The president was popular, the public was united. But once the administration encountered trouble and adversity, it discovered - it found itself disarmed. It had no advocates other than its own in-house communicators and the most committed partisans. There were pitifully few respected independent voices ready to join the discussion on behalf of the administration's policies. They could not convince, because they had not been convinced.
Speaking directly to the people works when the people are intensely engaged. But big publics pay only intermittent attention to politics and policy. When that attention is diverted, specialists and enthusiasts reclaim their usual disproportionate impact.
By that time however the argument may well have been lost among that portion of the public that is still paying attention.
The Wall Street Journal backhandedly acknowledged this effect in an editorial the other day.
George H.W. Bush foresaw Senator Quayle as a similar reach across generations. But at the first sign of criticism, Mr. Bush's advisers gave Mr. Quayle a paint-by-numbers speech and all but stuffed him into a trunk for the duration of the campaign. His reputation never recovered.
That's exactly right. Dan Quayle was anything but a stupid person. He was a capable and conscientious senator who impressed almost everyone who got to meet him. But how many people ever did get to meet him?
You see the same effect with policy debates. Remember how hard it was to regain public interest in Iraq after the summer of 2005? Americans wrote it off as a defeat and tuned out when the president appeared on tv to argue that things could be turned around. Look at the difficulty the administration has in gaining any ear for any defense of its economic record.
If you want to win a debate, you have to come prepared to debate for every audience at every level. We can all understand that it is unwise to refuse Oprah. But it is equally unwise to do only Oprah. It's not just Jay Carney who wants more. As President Bush's current numbers suggest, so does Oprah's audience.
09/05 02:09 PM