Posted on October 10, 1994 in Washington Watch
One of the strangest Senate races in U.S. history is taking place this year in California. The effort of one-term Republican Congressman to unseat Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has put on display some of the most dangerous facets and trends of U.S. politics.
The first fact that all observers note is that it will easily be the most expensive race in U.S. political history. By November, Huffington will have spent more than $25 million and Feinstein more than $12 million. This exceeds by more than $10 million the previous high spent on a Senate race.
The race will also be one of the most negative, since most of the combined $37 million is being spent on negative television and radio advertising, as each candidate uses the media to attack the other.
What makes this election especially noteworthy, however, is the unique candidacy of Michael Huffington. Politically, he is a virtual unknown – but he is a wealthy unknown.
Having inherited a fortune from his father’s oil business, Huffington moved from Texas to California in 1991. In 1992 he announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress against an 18-year incumbent Republican who was highly regarded by the national party. In fact, then-Vice President Quayle was dispatched to California to meet with Huffington with the hope of discouraging the businessman from running. Huffington refused.
Raising no money from contributors, Huffington spent $5.2 million of his own money to finance a media campaign and win the race. In so doing, he spent more than $41 in advertising for every vote he received – an astronomical sum. His $5.2 million expenditure represented the highest amount ever spent on a congressional race, the national average for a congressional seat being $400,000.
After serving only four months in Congress, Huffington announced his intention to enter the 1994 Senate race. And once again, he has financed the entire $25 million campaign from his own personal fortune.
Huffington’s entire candidacy is a media effort of 30- and 60-second advertisements. While he has used a few of these commercials to define himself – as a loving father, a “rugged Californian” in the image of Ronald Reagan, and a person of “value” – the majority of his campaign commercials have been “attack ads” designed to negatively define his opponent, Dianne Feinstein.
Huffington has refused to do any interviews with the press since announcing his candidacy, and has made only a few public appearances.
In fact, very little is known about candidate Huffington. His position on issues are vague. For campaign literature he has produced a “Statement of Purpose” that addresses only four issues: crime, the economy, illegal immigration, and welfare. The general themes of the document are those of a fiscal conservative. The statement makes out Huffington as tough on crime and a supporter of the death penalty. He is anti-government and generally sees “the government” as the source of the nation’s ills. In an interview in Time Magazine, Huffington once said, “I want a government that does nothing.” His solution to welfare and poverty is to encourage voluntarism.
Huffington never speaks about foreign policy, nor does he deal with other complex domestic issues.
Little can be learned about candidate Huffington from his Congressional record or from his employment resume. In his two years on Congress he sponsored no legislation, gave no major speeches, and missed a number of votes on key issues. On some issues he actually voted first for and then against them.
Huffington’s employment record is equally confusing and undistinguished. He worked for his father’s oil company, and served a one-year appointment in the Reagan Administration as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, though the appointment was purely political. His supervisor at the Pentagon, Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney has noted,
“Huffington’s tenure was most notable for his unexplained absences and evident disinterest in his job. Mike brought no expertise… and evinced no particular willingness to master the work, therefore he was essentially irrelevant.”
And yet one month before this November’s election, candidate Huffington, who many analysts are describing as a “cipher” or a “blank slate” is even in the polls with Dianne Feinstein in the race for the U.S. Senate seat from California.
Dianne Feinstein is venerable figure in California politics. She is a moderate Democrat with an extensive record of service to the state. She has served on a number of State Boards and was an extremely successful Mayor of San Francisco.
Feinstein, while only a Senator for the past two years, has already achieved a great deal, including a leadership role in passing the ban on assault weapons and pushing through the California Desert Protection act, a needed piece of environmental legislation.
Feinstein has been attempting a breakthrough, reminding voters of her service and at the same time raising questions about Huffington’s background. But as the campaign enters its final month, Huffington seems to have momentum on his side.
That is precisely what is troubling about this election and U.S. politics today – that service records and backgrounds and stands on the issues don’t carry the importance they once did.
Huffington seems to have discovered the flaw in our contemporary electoral system. Politics today is not about issues or even people, it is about images. It is not about substance, it is about style and the impressions that style can create in the minds of voters.
Years of negative campaigns like the California Senate race (not to mention scandals and produced by the unmasking of made-for-media virtuous images) have produced an electorate that is angry at government and mistrustful of politics. Voters are so disillusioned and alienated from our political system as to be ripe for the type of media-generated candidates Mike Huffington represents.
In reality, candidate Huffington has no reality. He only exists in the minds of voters. He is the product of an extensive (and expensive) advertising campaign designed to give voters what they want: the image of a beautiful and successful family, a man angry at government, no issues and no substance – just an image of anger. Huffington’s vagueness on the issues and his refusal to appear in forums which will require him to answer difficult questions allows voters to imagine him as they wish him to be – at least not until after the election (although, as Huffington’s two years in Congress suggest, they may not even find out then).
This strategy was engineered by the same brilliant media team that designed Ronald Reagan’s masterful 1984 campaign: Ed Rollins, Richard Wirthlin, Sig Rogich, Ken Kachigian and Lynn Nofziger.
In the last month before the election, the product of this team will blitz the California media with $6.5 million in television time, $3 million of radio time, $1 million in newspapers ads, and $2 million on direct mail to voters. The images they create through the barrage will go further to shaping voters’ minds than the news media.
This is in part because of the highly publicized O.J. Simpson murder trial and another ongoing Hollywood trail. The state news media, particularly radio and television, are focusing far more attention on these two scandal trials than on hard news, such as elections. As a result, the Huffington millions are opening up their own playing field on the airwaves.
And it may not stop with a Senate race. Huffington, the cipher, may harbor Presidential ambitions. Like Ross Perot, he realizes that his wealth can be used to shape ideas and win power. He is more clever than Perot, however, in that while Perot sought to use his advertising money to create a national classroom, Huffington has exploited the essence of advertising: the manipulation of images and moods to create needs which can only be filled by the advertiser’s product. In this case, the mood is anger and the product is Huffington.
At one point, Huffington told one rare interviewer, “If I could be President, obviously, then I would like to be President.”
Much has recently be written about Huffington’s wife Arianna (about whom even less is known than about Huffington himself) and her driving ambition to see her husband in the White House. Arianna is apparently a priestess in a small religious cult. She is seen as a dominant figure in Huffington’s life. His Congressional staff indicate that he never voted on a bill without first asking Arianna about it. It is alleged that she is the mastermind behind his initial drive for Congress, his current bid for senate, and a future bid for the White House.
Can Huffington be stopped? The answer to that question is now in the hands of the California voters. Will Feinstein’s message of service and accomplishment break into the public debate? Will she be able to force voters to ask the question “Who is Michael Huffington and what does he stand for?” Or will a majority of California voters march mindlessly to the polls and vote for a new candidate the way they buy a new toothpaste or a soda – because they were influenced by the needs created in commercials?
The outcome of the race is important not only for California politics but for the future of U.S. politics as well.
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