Race to the Bottom

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POLITICS DECEMBER 23, 1999

Race to the Bottom

It would seem, on the face of it, that the only thing standing between George W. Bush and the presidency is a persistent reservation about his intellect. The doubts have crystallized around a reporter's now-famous pop quiz, in which the Texas governor could not identify various difficult-to-pronounce heads of state. Bush, according to many in the press, needs to wonk himself up, and fast. He needs to cocoon himself with all those Stanford Ph.D.s and reemerge with a deep, studied interest in the stability of Central Asia and the efficacy of scattered-site housing. He needs to throw out some acronyms and cite some studies, maybe quote Hayek now and then. He must learn to mask his boredom with the daily grind of government. If he could only show some mastery of the issues, he'd be a brilliant candidate.

Nonsense. Bush hasn't done a bad job of masking his boredom with the details of governance; he's done an excellent job of flaunting it. When asked by Tucker Carlson of Talk magazine to enumerate his weaknesses, Bush baldly replied, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something." In another moment with Carlson, Bush reported having read a profile of Al Gore by Louis Menand in which the vice president discusses Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. This prompts Menand's observation that "it is a little hard to imagine having this conversation with George W. Bush." Bush does not take umbrage at this slight to his mental capacities. Instead, he sees in it proof of his political virtuosity. "Bush finished the piece," writes Carlson, "convinced that Gore lacks the warmth and personal appeal necessary to win a presidential race." More recently, Bush advisers have confided their pleasure at the pop quiz "fiasco," saying it makes their man seem like a normal guy.

In fact, Bush's lightweight persona has the feel of a deliberate strategy. What Bush understands, and the pundits do not, is that he is a brilliant candidate not despite his antiintellectualism but because of it. He has stumbled upon a fortuitous moment in which the political culture, tired of wonks and pointy-heads and ideologues, yearns instead for a candidate unburdened by, or even hostile to, ideas. It is a moment made for the chipper governor from Texas, and he is soaring upward, propelled by his own weightlessness.

Of course, journalists have not set out to reward Bush, or other candidates, for being dumb. What they say is that they're interested in "character." But what they don't admit is that this comes to much the same thing.

"Character," in current parlance, means lived experience-- preferably outside of politics. It takes into account neither public philosophy nor programmatic detail. In fact, such things tend to mitigate against strong "character," since they suggest an obsession with government. In the current landscape, the coin of the realm is personal qualities such as "leadership" and "authenticity," which are implicitly set against accumulated knowledge or unashamed braininess. "Leaders" are men of action, not men of words. "Authenticity" is a close relative of simplicity--you can much more easily imagine the description applied to, say, a rancher than to a biophysics professor. The obsession with character inherently disfavors a candidacy based on ideas--such as, for instance, Steve Forbes's--in favor of one based on biography. A superior grasp of issues is irrelevant, or even a hindrance, in that it can detract from a candidate's effort to craft a personal narrative.

Slow-witted candidates, of course, are nothing new. But such candidates can still campaign on ideas--Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle ran some of the most fiercely ideological campaigns in recent memory. George W. Bush is something new--a slow-witted candidate parading his campaign's lack of substance as a virtue. Consider the chronology of his candidacy. First, Bush decided to run; next, the Republican establishment coalesced around him; and only then were a series of experts dispatched to Austin to help Bush decide what he believes. His most recent TV ads are almost a parody of gauzy non-specificity, portraying the candidate talking with minorities, standing with children, and actually kissing babies. Indeed, with the Iowa caucuses just two months away, Bush has yet to elucidate opinions on most major topics.

All this has elicited raves from the press. Consider some of the adjectives used to describe Bush: "upbeat," "affable," "untroubled"--a man who, as Talk put it, "doesn't give a damn what you think of him." Such praise may not be intended to reward Bush for his shallowness, but it does so nonetheless. After all, how could someone fully aware of the stakes involved in running for president maintain such a stress-free demeanor while preparing to determine the course of human history? Even George Will, who cloaks his every utterance with chin-stroking affectation, has explicitly defended Bush on anti-intellectual grounds, writing that "intellect in politics is rare, and perhaps should be."

Bush's early success has set the terms of the race; the other candidates are grasping to match his style. The farce of Al Gore's campaign lies in its frantic efforts to conceal the public-policy rationale for his candidacy. He has the appearance of a man who prepared for a spelling bee and found himself in a swimsuit competition. Not too long ago, Gore's detailed knowledge of defense, technology, and the environment might have been considered his strongest selling point. Today, he and his advisers treat it as a kind of embarrassment. Instead of emphasizing his knowledge, they have trotted out a succession of vignettes--young Al Gore laboring in the fields of Tennessee, enlisting in Vietnam, crusading as a small-town reporter--all meant to portray the vice president (implausibly) as a folksy man not overly interested in government. Arizona Senator John McCain has been wildly applauded for publishing a campaign book that eschews political philosophy in favor of straight personal narrative. And, while McCain has oriented much of his candidacy around the fight for campaign finance reform, the press rarely, if ever, discusses the substance of the bill he proposed. Instead, they view it as further evidence of the personality traits McCain exhibited as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Even Bill Bradley, who disliked talking about his basketball career while in the Senate for fear of looking like a dumb jock, now mentions it at every opportunity--since it makes him look less government-centric than Gore.

 

Doesn't this dumbing-down occur every campaign season? Actually, no. Compare the current race to the one in 1992. The telling difference lies not in the comparative brain mass of the candidates but in the way they presented themselves. Eight years ago, candidates waved graphs and ten-point plans. Clinton published a campaign book, Putting People First, that laid out nearly everything he would try to do as a first-term president: an economic-stimulus package, a tax hike on the wealthy, a plan to implement universal health care, and so on. In retrospect, it was a nearly pure embodiment of the civics-class model of government: a candidate laying out exactly what he intends to do and asking the voters to judge his platform on its merits. Paul Tsongas put forth a book, A Call to Economic Arms, spelling out his economic program in harsh detail, and his itemization of otherwise unpopular measures to reduce the deficit actually won him favor as a truth-teller. Ross Perot promised, if elected, to bring together the nation's foremost policy experts. He did not have defined solutions to problems such as the deficit or health care, but the fact that he sought to cultivate an aura of wonkery is telling, in the same way that Gore's current effort to cultivate an air of folksy disinterest in government is telling.

The serious mood was captured by the press, whose coverage of the campaign, in contrast to today's, stands out as a virtual celebration of intelligence. In 1992, The Washington Post marveled at Gore's scientific literacy. "Gore's smartest-guy-in-the-class routine is forgivable: He probably really is the smartest guy in his class," a profile declared, proceeding to describe a Gore speech in which "[i]t seemed as though he had synthesized the entirety of human knowledge since the discovery of fire." Such an interpretation is unimaginable now. More typical of the current thinking is a recent Post account that described a similar Gore event as "a down-in-the-weeds policy summit that only a man with a steel-trap brain and a steel rear end would describe as `fun.'"

It is not that the media covered the presidential hopefuls more favorably in 1992 than it does now. It simply enforced a different standard--programmatic coherence rather than personal style. Consider some of the events of 1992 that were chewed over in the pages of The Washington Post: Tsongas "insisted that he was not guilty of creeping Santaclausism" for offering a tax break for the natural-gas industry (March 6); Clinton "hedged on whether he was giving up on a tax cut for the middle class" (June 19); President Bush "pleaded ignorance" of federal regulations that favored an environmentally harmful form of refining oil (also June 19). One sentence in particular sums up the tenor of the 1992 campaign: "[Perot] continued to insist that he is `the only guy that talks numbers,' but offered none today" (April 27). Then consider this year's coverage of the Gore campaign. The vice president has faced little policy-related criticism for his shaky claim that Bradley would eliminate Medicare. But he has been endlessly reviled as "boring," "condescending," and the "class prig"--insults typically reserved for intellectuals.

The difference comes through in the buzzwords of each race. In 1992, the word dropping from the lips of every candidate and reporter was "specificity," as in the Post's report that "closer examination shows that [Clinton] has provided far more specificity about the programs and tax breaks he would initiate than the ways and means of bringing about savings." ("Specificity is the character issue of 1992," said George Stephanopoulos at the time.) Today the phrase is "authenticity." (Newsweek: "Bradley and McCain are hawking this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity--and plainspoken candor--that comes from a life that starts outside politics.") This is borne out in the coverage by other major news outlets as well, including The New York Times, the Post, and Time. Eight years ago, in articles that mentioned the major presidential contenders, the most influential newspapers and magazines used the words "specific" or "specificity" more than ten times as frequently as "authentic" or "authenticity." In the current election cycle, variations of "authenticity" have occurred almost twice as frequently as "specificity."

 

The country has changed since 1992, and the most obvious difference is its material condition. Eight years ago, America was emerging from a recession, and the populace wanted a president with concrete proposals for improving the standard of living. Today, the ensuing prosperity, along with technological progress and the rise of the stock market, have dulled Americans' expectations of their political leaders. People look mainly to the private sector, not to the government, as the vehicle for improving their lives. Concern for material well-being has been replaced by a concern that modernity has undermined the moral underpinnings of American culture--witness the reaction to the Littleton massacre, in which a large portion of the blame was placed on the Internet and new entertainment technologies. As a result, the president is seen as a moral exemplar and a figure of cultural import rather than as a solver of problems.

All this was evident in the results of a survey conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center. "Science and technology are widely seen as the engines of the century's prosperity," Pew reported. At the same time, "misgivings about America today are focused on the moral climate, with people from all walks of life looking skeptically on the ways in which the country has changed both culturally and spiritually."

The historical precursor to this sentiment appeared in the 1920s. Then, as now, economic growth and innovation served to direct idealism toward the economy. The notion took hold that, as the title of an article popular at the time put it, "Everybody Ought to Be Rich." Some of the euphoria was fueled by the stock market, which prompted stories of humble folk attaining unimaginable wealth. "Edwin Lefevre told of a broker's valet who had made nearly a quarter of a million in the market, of a trained nurse who cleaned up thirty thousand following the tips given her by grateful patients," writes Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, "and of a Wyoming cattleman, thirty miles from the nearest railroad, who bought or sold a thousand shares a day--getting his market returns by radio and telephoning his orders to the nearest large town to be transmitted to New York by telegram." Note in particular the last example, which combines both market and technological ebullience. It is a forerunner to a recent TV commercial for an online brokerage firm in which a tow-truck driver, dripping with working-class mannerisms, reveals that online trading has made him wealthy enough to buy his own island.

The economic giddiness of the time palpably deadened interest in government. "The more or less unconscious and unplanned activities of business men," wrote Walter Lippmann, "are for once more novel, more daring, and in general more revolutionary than the theories of the progressives." During such a time, in contrast to the earlier years of the century, the country did not seem to require great and able presidents. William Leuchtenburg recounts, in The Perils of Prosperity, the reaction of one Republican senator to the nomination of Warren Harding: "The times, said Connecticut's Senator Brandegee with a shrug, did not require `first-raters.'"

Likewise, today's material circumstances have given rise to a view that is not so much anti-government as simply bored with government. A Pew poll identifies a new voting block called "New Prosperity Independents"--moderate social liberals who are stock-and Internet-savvy, optimistic about the status quo, and heavily supportive of Bush. This is more of a sensibility than an ideology, and it has no manifesto to define it, probably because none of its adherents has bothered to write one. But the general flavor was caught by Kurt Andersen, writing in Slate magazine's Breakfast Table, a chatty e-mail exchange:

[P]olitics don't and really can't matter all that much in this country right now. There are rough, large consensuses on all the big issues--economics, social welfare, civil rights, women's rights, war and peace, even abortion. And they will continue as long as the economy chugs along like this and we stay out of wars any longer than a mini-series. Sure, there's a biggish, scary lunatic right--the Gary Bauerite creationist anti-gay regiments-- but they're not going to be running the country or amending the Constitution anytime soon. In fact, Pat Buchanan is right about the virtual indistinguishability of the Democrats and Republicans. I sympathize with both Buchanan and Warren Beatty viscerally, if not ideologically. I really think national politics kind of needs to be blown up and rebuilt. For the couple weeks seven years ago before he revealed himself to be a horrible, crazy gnome, Ross Perot seemed to me like a great idea. And if next November the candidates are George Bush, Al Gore, and Jesse Ventura, it isn't inconceivable that I would pull the lever for Ventura. And I certainly wouldn't be upset if Bush won, even if he can't name a single book he's ever read.

This small piece of political anthropology embodies many of the stylistic and intellectual tics that are shaping coverage of the presidential race. There is little in the way of substantive philosophy other than the social prejudices of the yuppie class, which holds the simultaneous beliefs that the current arrangement is producing highly satisfactory results and, at the same time, is somehow terribly wrong ("kind of needs to be blown up"). Mostly, yuppies consider politics amusing but fundamentally unimportant, and they prefer leaders who share their unburdened disposition.

But there is another reason for the anti-intellectual turn of the political zeitgeist: Bill Clinton. It is most evident in the criticisms of the right, which make clear connections between Clinton's venality and his intellect. On his domestic policies, particularly health care, the right has portrayed Clinton as arrogant and elitist, a central planner plotting with a coterie of utopian academics to impose a new order upon the populace. Regarding his many scandals, he is devious and clever, an evasive Yale lawyer driven by legalisms rather than by basic moral sense.

But this is a minor strain of anti-intellectualism--the anti-intellectualism of a discontented, highly ideological subset. Most of today's anti-intellectualism is rooted in boredom, not anger, and it arises not from a hatred of Clintonism but from an approval of it. The widely remarked-upon irony of Clinton's presidency is that the backlash against him reached its greatest intensity just as his policies attained their popular zenith. Clinton's success in capturing the majority view on all major issues has banished policy from public discourse, leaving only considerations of character, where Clinton fares poorly. The obsession with personal character is rooted in the premise that policy no longer matters.


This sentiment has been absorbed, more or less unconsciously, by the news media. The pattern in the media loosely tracks the thinking of the general public. Reporters-- more than the population at large--sympathize with Clinton's ideology and generally confine their most penetrating inquiries to character-oriented questions. The press, of course, has always covered both the symbolic and the substantive functions of the presidency. But now the scales have tipped far in one direction. Even the most serious newspapers write about the presidency almost as if it were simply a fascinating parade of characters, intrigue, and scandal--culturally meaningful but functionally insignificant.

Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is the seminal work of the genre. Although the book chronicles the 1988 presidential campaign, it reached the height of its influence, at least among scribblers, in 1996. This is because its most famous section details Bob Dole's ordeal recovering from wounds suffered during World War II. It is gripping and evocative prose, and it inspired countless numbers of Cramer's colleagues to trek to Dole's hometown of Russell, Kansas, in an effort to understand the Republican nominee. The trouble is that, however fascinating it is on a personal level, the tale does not go very far toward explaining what sort of president Dole would have been. Dole entered politics essentially as a blank slate, and his worldview resulted largely from careerism, the Midwestern Republican tradition, and a series of attachments to interest groups--not from anything he learned while fighting in Italy or recovering in a hospital bed.

Nonetheless, the personal account has become the predominant mode of analysis. The Washington Post's David Maraniss, the leading Clinton interpreter, has distinguished himself with a series of extremely long psycho-biographical profiles of powerful politicians, all of whom inevitably come across as marked by childhood traumas, haunted by ghosts of dead parents, and otherwise defined by life events that have nothing to do with their careers in government.

The Cramer-Maraniss genre, while not explicitly antiintellectual, naturally favors candidates who run on biographical platforms. In fact, it renders candidates who run on platforms of political philosophy practically inexplicable. Consider one particularly illustrative example: a recent profile of Steve Forbes that ran on the front page of the Post. The headline--"forbes reveals little but his ideas"--captures the fundamental assumption. "[Forbes's] book expounds on dismantling the Internal Revenue Service and instituting a flat tax," reports the amazed writer. "But [his] column rarely mentions his family and the book index doesn't list his father, wife, or children." The article goes on in this vein, portraying Forbes's desire to run for president on the basis of what he would do as president as the product of a bizarre personality disorder.

It is true, to be sure, that Forbes's fascination with ideas is not an intellectual passion but the zealotry of a half-educated man. But the Post writer does not go anywhere near that far. The story does not even entertain the possibility that Forbes's candidacy stems from a genuine desire to promote supply-side economics--a creed to which he has a long-standing and fanatic devotion. Instead, it pores over the details of Forbes's youth and wonders why Forbes declines to discuss them on the stump. It is tantamount to explaining Karl Marx without mentioning his affinity for communism.

 

Underlying all this is an unstated but coherent view of the American president: a symbolic monarch who embodies the national spirit. George Will, in his discourse against intellectualism in politics, writes: "The headmaster of Bush's private secondary school in Houston aspired to give students `a sense of style,' meaning `the individual's capacity to attain his goal without wasteful and irrelevant effort.' At Bush's Andover graduation, the headmaster urged graduates to `take with you a sense of style,' a `distinction in manner and bearing.'" What Will (along with many other Americans in the post-Clinton age) is really looking for is a president who will make us proud--and do little else. Indeed, the biggest applause line in George W.'s stump speech comes not in response to any policy preference but at the speech's dramatic finale, when he raises his right hand and promises to bring honor to the office of the presidency, "so help me God."

The trouble, of course, is that the American presidency embodies not only the ceremonial role of a head of state but also the functional duties of a prime minister. Current prosperity notwithstanding, there remains work to be done, and problems that will arise. History shows that unless presidential candidates campaign on a pledge to address specific problems, they have great difficulty rallying the people, and their representatives in Congress, to tackle them once in office. It was such ideological campaigning that allowed Reagan to pass his tax cuts in 1981 and Clinton to pass his deficit-reducing budget in 1993. What, by contrast, are candidates elected on the basis of character and personal history empowered to achieve? Nothing much, Americans may respond cheerily, confident that they will have as little need of effective governance tomorrow as they do today. Such are the happy delusions of a contented people.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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