Selling Government Short


abor Day, once the formal kickoff date for the fall presidential campaigns, is now just another milestone in a marketing process that provides full-time employment for politicians, pollsters, consultants, fund-raisers and members of the media who write about them.

"For most of American history, campaigns generally were confined to the latter half of election years, and when the campaigning ended, the governing began," write Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, editors of The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press), a forthcoming book by a group of political experts.

Such is not the case with today's White House aspirants. Democratic nominee Al Gore has been running for President since 1987. His Republican opponent, George W. Bush, reportedly began eyeing the Oval Office after his father was defeated for re-election in 1992. And even wild-card, third-party candidates Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader have been publicly hawking their disparate ideological wares for decades.

It's no wonder The Washington Post's respected political reporter, David S. Broder, recently churned out a column entitled,"Fighting the Ho-Hum Factor." After a visit to Michigan, Broder reported that voters seemed apathetic despite a long list of vital issues to be resolved on that state's November ballot.

Fall-off in voter participation has reached worrisome levels in recent years. Ornstein and Mann believe that the overemphasis on office-seeking-and perhaps the overexposure of the seekers-has caused an increase in "public cynicism and disengagement." Less than half of the voting-age population cast ballots in the 1996 presidential election, and an increasing lack of interest in politics on the part of young people forebodes "even lower turnout rates in the future," they assert.

Perhaps even more troubling, argues George Mason University political scientist Hugh Heclo, is that the fundamental governmental goal of long-term problem solving has become secondary to the immediate goal of winning the next election. In his overview chapter of the AEI book, Heclo cites the disinclination of Republicans and Democrats to compromise on solutions to critical problems such as the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund.

"Long-term settlements appropriate to governing may actually be the last thing wanted by those most committed to the permanent campaign," Heclo asserts after noting how leaders of both parties, as they "looked toward the 2000 elections," have chosen to engage in "posturing rather than deliberating" over the Social Security issue.

On the surface, it can be argued that the more closely politicians are attuned to the desires of voters, the better our democratic system is working. Heclo and his fellow authors readily concede that there should be much in common between governing and campaigning. What has gone wrong, they believe, is that modern marketing techniques and communications technologies have given politicians the ability and the incentive to manipulate public opinion rather than inform it.

Through the news media-particularly television-the public is regularly bombarded with what historian Daniel Boorstin described 40 years ago as "pseudo events." Heclo explains that "these are not real or spontaneous, but orchestrated events that occur because someone has planned, incited or otherwise brought them into being for the purpose of being observed and swaying opinion." Such arranged happenings include news leaks, interviews, trial balloons, reaction stories, staged appearances and confrontations that have become so commonplace that "most of us hardly recognize [them] as pseudo anymore," the George Mason political scientist laments.

Add negative political advertising to the mix, and political discourse becomes even less edifying. "Contemporary election campaign practices, including attack ads with nasty, inaccurate and unfair charges, have left millions of Americans manifestly dissatisfied with the electoral process and disposed to assume the worst about those who compete for their attention and votes," write Ornstein and Mann.

The techniques used to market candidates increasingly are being applied-with the same dispiriting effect-to manipulate public opinion on key policy issues. "The same style of attack ads, applied in policy wars in Washington and in sham 'issue advocacy' barrages against candidates, has added to the cynicism about the legitimacy of policy decisions," Ornstein and Mann add.

If America's political discourse has been cheapened, as the authors suggest, the degradation has not come without cost. It takes big bucks to pay for all the consultants, pollsters and advertisements. As a result, "fund-raising trumps all competitors in the struggle for the attention and energy of politicians and their aides," the editors glumly assert.

None of these developments can bring much joy to the candidates and officeholders caught up on the seemingly endless treadmill of the permanent campaign. But as long as America's politicians appear focused solely on winning the next election, the public's business will be poorly done and confidence in government will continue to erode.

Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal.