Waiting for the Next 'Great Campaign'|
by Michael Johnston
"Don't Vote! It Only Encourages Them!" The sign was chalked on the wall of a London pub the day after Margaret Thatcher called the 1987 election, but it speaks for many Americans too. Barely more than half of our voting-age population takes part in choosing the most powerful leader on earth.
Many citizens see presidential elections as irrelevant to their lives, or even as symptoms of what's wrong with politics. Each campaign is better-funded and more carefully researched than the last, and yet many feel something has been lost. We are waiting for the next `Great Campaign' -- an election in which attractive candidates offer clear choices, and in which the outcome seems to mean something.
The 1960 election was the last `great campaign' for many people. Eisenhower, the incumbent, was not eligible for re-election. The future was bright, and two young candidates from a new generation slugged it out on a nationwide scale. Presidential debates were held for the first time. Now that was a campaign.
Well, maybe. Nostalgia is selective and deceptive; that year's race had its low points. Our problems at home and abroad were serious, just like today's. The campaign did not lapse into scandal, but it also revealed very little about the characters of two deeply flawed men. And the result was the closest in history -- hardly a ringing endorsement of anyone.
What made 1960 special was that it was the last Pre-Teddy (White, that is, not Kennedy) election. Theodore H. White's book, The Making of the President 1960, gave us an insider's view of the campaign process. It was informative, exciting, and deserved the awards it won. But it also did much to shift our political focus from ends to means. Since 1960, the political story has not been about choices, but about tactics and techniques: margins in the polls, rhetorical gaffes and demographic splits. We hear less about what Candidate X said about abortion, for example, than about why he said it, whom the speech was aimed at, what problems it creates for the opposition and how it is likely to play in the polls. Everybody wants to be Teddy White; few want the much tougher job of analyzing substance.
No wonder campaigns seem increasingly the same. No wonder their emotional `hits' on America's problems are less and less satisfying, and more likely to lead to disappointment. No wonder people are turned off.
Ironically, we are unlikely to have another `great campaign' as long as we keep looking for it so hard. If, however, we take a step back and think in terms of the alternatives we face, we might see that almost every presidential campaign raises big issues, and that every election makes a difference -- even if that difference can be hard to predict from campaign trivia. There is a growing demand for better campaigns and political coverage; some journalists, scholars (such as Kathleen Jamieson and Thomas Patterson), voters and even politicians are arguing for more emphasis on content. This is an uphill fight, for the technology and economics of campaigns and journalism powerfully encourage facile chatter. Still, watch closely this fall; you will see people trying hard to elevate content over technique. It may be that 1996, like 1960, will prove to be a `great campaign' -- less for its outcome than for its effect on the ways we think about politics.