Posted on September 04, 1995 in Washington Watch

The American political landscape is in some disarray. Developments in the past few weeks have focused attention on the deep discord that exists in both political parties, and serious problems that plague American political culture, as we approach the 1996 elections.

That presidential politics has become a game of creating perceptions was in evidence at the recent meeting of the Iowa state Republican party. Since Iowa will be the first state to hold presidential nominating campaigns in 1996, all of the nine Republican candidates have spent significant time and money there.

While the actual Iowa elections will not take place until next February, the state party organization sought to raise money by organizing a late summer “straw poll.” It was to be a fun event bringing the candidates together with their supporters, to make speeches and then, for all in attendance to informally vote for their favorite candidate.

But given the intense competition among the nine Republican hopefuls and the media attention focused on the Iowa event, it became anything but fun. Since there were no rules to govern the affair – a $25 fee was the only requirement for participation – each of the candidates saw the meeting as a chance to out-organize and embarrass his opponents.

With Senator Bob Dole expected to win in Iowa (because he comes from the neighboring state of Kansas and is frequently referred to as “Iowa’s third Senator” ), his closest challengers, Texas Senator Phil Graham and CNN commentator Pat Buchanan, made a determined effort to bring supporters to the state party meeting.

Buchanan, a favorite among Iowa’s religious right wing, worked tirelessly to round up supporters and buy them tickets to attend. Graham, not to be outdone, spent as much as $500,000 to bring supporters not only from Iowa but also from Illinois and Nebraska and Texas to vote for him.

Dole’s organization also worked hard and bought what they hoped were enough tickets for their supporters to bring him a comfortable margin of victory when the straw vote took place at the meeting.

When the final tally was announced, the Graham effort had produced a tie with Dole and the cash-poor but hard working Buchanan campaign had placed a strong third.

The event, of course, was meaningless in real terms. One commentator called it “a bizarre vote-buying bazaar,” while another correctly framed it a “rigged election.”

But Graham strongly championed the vote as a “referendum” on Dole and argued, even though he had radically outspent his fellow Senator, the results represented a Graham victory and a Dole defeat. Enough media outlets played the story Graham’s way, projecting him as an organizational winner, that the event became “proof” that Dole was no longer invulnerable. Some went so far as to speculate that Dole, now that he was “beaten,” was a weakened candidate who had always had “paper-thin” support.

Since politics is so much about perception and perception is largely a media-created reality, the meaningless Iowa event took on a life of its own and began to create its own reality. A week after the event, “Dole Loses,” “Graham Wins,” and “Dole Weakened in Iowa” stories proliferated across the country. A national poll showed Dole’s support slipping by 15% – from 51% to 36% in the Republican campaign for President.

This ability of some political efforts to manipulate media with smart money and organizing and shaping a story to create political realities had been on display a week earlier at a major event in sponsored and paid for by Texas billionaire and 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Perot, who literally bought himself a presidential campaign in 1992, appears to be at it again for 1996. Knowing the wisdom of the adage “if you’ve got something to sell there will always be someone to buy,” Perot is willing to spend millions to sell himself. He knew there are millions of Americans sufficiently disaffected by American politics to willingly identify themselves with his protest efforts.

While the Perot event was billed as an issue forum “to debate the serious issues facing America,” the real purpose of the event was to show that Ross Perot is a political power.

Perot drew 19% of the vote in 1992, but has failed to produce his promised United We Stand America (UWSA) political organization as a permanent third force in American politics. In most states, UWSA is a faction-driven group of a small handful of voters. In other states, it is merely an office taken over by Perot himself. In his quest to be seen as the arbiter of the independent voters in America, Perot continues to use money and the media to keep the spotlight on himself.

Afraid of being left behind, the politicians in the Republican party followed his lead. (The Clinton Administration, too, sent representatives to attend.) All nine of the Republican hopefuls attended the Perot event, reinforcing the media perception that when Perot, on behalf of “the people,” beckons, politicians will respond.

The lasting story of the event was not the Republican candidates and their speeches (although some commentators did not Dole’s weak performance and Buchanan’s crowd stirring rhetoric); it was the power of Ross Perot and his possible 1996 political candidacy.

On another level, the perceptions game being played out by the growing number of political figures being touted by the media as possible independent presidential candidates in 1996. There has been a long press romance with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. Powell continues to be coy about his interests. He never acknowledges a desire to run, nor does he explicitly rule out the possibility of running. As a result, speculation abounds. He has been on the cover of major magazines and regularly featured in most news outlets. His audiences grow, as do prospective sales of his autobiography due to be on sale this fall.

Playing the same game is New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Announcing last week that he will not run for reelection to the Senate in 1996, he criticized the current state of the American political system, and vaguely hinted that he still has political ambition. That was all that the press needed to conclude the possibility of an independent run for the presidency next year by Bradley or – even more far-fetched but tantalizing – a Powell-Bradley independent campaign. Polls have been taken, stories have been written and, once again, the perceptions have begun to take on the appearance of political reality.

Bradley’s criticism of American politics is correct to some degree. But unless the Senator alters his course he may become, like other critics before him, a practitioner of some of the same evils he has identified in the system.

Clearly, there is a popular desire for reform in American politics. But in recent years too many politicians have attached themselves to that desire for change only to manipulate it for their own advancement. Instead of emphasizing the development of grass-roots based political parties, our political process has come to be dominated by money and media-centered personality cults.

Despite their enormous potential to produce lasting and genuine change in the structure of American politics, these individual-led efforts of the past decade have failed, leaving only memories of past glory, and a betrayed and embittered constituency.

For all that I disagree with the fundamentalist Christian right wing, it is important to note that they are the only example of a real political movement for change in the past decade. Instead of merely being the vehicle for the advancement of the personality cult of Pat Robertson (out of whose 1988 presidential campaign this movement grew), the movement sunk its roots into the Republican party at the grass-roots level. It recruited and organized hundreds of thousands of members within the party structure, and today fully controls one-third of the Republican party in the U.S.

The same cannot be said of the past efforts of Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas or Ross Perot – all of whom left nothing in their wake but themselves and their ideas. In each case, what initially moved these efforts fortunes was media perception, just as media perception sustained them, and it was the same media perception that ultimately toppled them.


A final note: despite those and other weaknesses in the American political process, it moves inexorably forward to choose first the candidates for the presidency and then, in 1996, the next president of the United States.

This column will continue to describe, explain and, at times, critique, that process through its completion in the hope that – all weaknesses aside – it will make the political process somewhat more understandable.

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