Joe Klein is the flower of American political journalism, a sharp raconteur who shows traces of the gonzo style that was in vogue when he was honing his craft at Rolling Stone back in the day. He’s a man who has followed countless Presidential campaigns, who has seen it all and who seems to know everyone, politicians and famous media figures alike, the latter of whom he likes to name-check and shout out to in an annoying fashion throughout his work. Today, at the very peak of his profession, he’s a columnist for Time magazine and emblematic of all that’s smug and clueless in the mainstream press.
Mr. Klein’s subject this time out are the “marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters” who have so utterly changed the way politics works in the last 30-odd years: who they are, what they have done, and how we have all been harmed by their rise from curios to chieftains. Books about the hidden forces in American life are inherently interesting, and political consultancy, as the strategic intersection of culture, commerce and politics, could do with a good stiff muckraking. The nation needs a guide to the forces and assumptions and bad ideas that shape what we see on our TV sets and what goes on in Congress.
But this is not it. Politics Lost has a few brilliant descriptions and is written with the scoffing attitude of a muckraker, but it shows no genuine curiosity about the forces behind the scenes or the larger cultural patterns that make politics what they are. After a promising start detailing the career of the first Promethean consultant, the book descends into a confusing jumble of names and malign intentions, skipping backwards and forwards chronologically with only a hint of a narrative: Things got bad, then they got worse, and now they’re plumb awful.
Eventually, though, a discernible order emerges. But it’s less a coherent thesis about consultancy than a handful of prejudices that, for Mr. Klein and certain other writers still enthralled by the creaking swingerisms of the 60’s, stand solid amid the swirling oceans of history. The first of these is authenticity, or, I should say, the transcendent aesthetic and philosophical value of authenticity. This is something of a theme in Mr. Klein’s oeuvre: Years ago, he wrote a biography of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl songwriter who came to personify proletarian trueness for the 60’s, so surely Mr. Klein knows the authentic when he sees it. And he claims that people used to see it often enough in the political realm.
When Harry Truman accepted the Democratic nomination in 1948, for example, he spoke without a prepared text (“Harry Truman was riffing!” writes Mr. Klein) and announced plans to call Congress back into session on July 26, which was known in his home state of Missouri as “Turnip Day.” This peculiar term strikes Mr. Klein as the ne plus ultra of political authenticity, and he uses the phrase “Turnip Day” throughout the book as a symbol of the “spontaneity” that has disappeared from politics. Today, as we all know, the consultants, with their focus groups and marketing know-how, have drained such flights of funkiness from politics, for evidence of which we need look no further than the robotic, impotent John Kerry campaign of 2004, with its phalanx of quarreling consultants. On the flip side is Ronald Reagan, who lost when he did what his consultants told him to do, and who won when he stayed true to his unique self (a hackneyed idea Mr. Klein expresses in the inevitable cliché: “let Reagan be Reagan”).
This aesthetic quality, then, is what politics is all about. It’s authenticity that separates winners from losers, good politics from bad, and he-man leader types from consultant-directed puppet boys. Real politicians say honest and heartfelt and down-home things like “Turnip Day”; candidates who listen to consultants mouth shameful clichés and “banana-peel words.” (Of course, if authenticity is what’s required to win, and if what consultants do is strip away authenticity, then one wonders why anyone hires consultants in the first place, a mystery that the book never really resolves.)
The second fixed idea in Mr. Klein’s mental universe is a persistent disdain for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. This, too, is common sense for certain self-designated spokesmen of the 60’s generation (remember the annoying “rebel capitalist” meme of the late 90’s, in which the libertarian New Economy was supposed to be the final flowering of the counterculture?), and Mr. Klein duly assails “the mopey left” with their “down-on-America pessimism.” He laughs off “state-run health care” as a “vegetarian notion” and, as he has done in his other books, heaps contempt on traditional liberalism—on the economic issues like education, wages and Social Security that once linked the Democratic Party to its working-class base. Economic liberalism, Mr. Klein yawns, is boring stuff—“jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah,” is how he summarizes it at one point—pure boilerplate platitude that only a consultant could love. It smells of “nativism, isolationism, protectionism, paranoia.” Besides, it flies in the face of nature and historical inevitability, seeks to “preserve the past by ‘fighting’ to protect the manufacturing jobs that were skedaddling to countries with lower labor costs.” And, of course, it almost never wins elections.
Liberalism sucks, authenticity rocks: All else in Politics Lost (and, indeed, in all the Klein works I have read) can be extrapolated from these two fixed points. So: If someone strikes Mr. Klein as authentic, you can be fairly sure he’s not a liberal. And conversely: If someone is the “New” kind of Democrat who pooh-poohs economic liberalism, you can be similarly confident that within a few paragraphs, ol’ Joe will pronounce him to be a one-of-a-kind Turnip Day American, brimming with leadership and humanity.
This makes for a truly bizarre series of conclusions, the first and most important of which is the courageousness of centrism. Up until now, you have probably thought that when you saw Democrats dumping their traditional principles in order to run pallid, market-tested campaigns appealing to swing voters with rhetoric borrowed from the G.O.P., they were doing so because they had been listening to consultants, pollsters, focus groups and so on. Well—according to Mr. Klein, you have it precisely backwards. In Joe’s world, the consultants and the pollsters and even the money are all on the other side, forever driving the cowardly politicians to the partisan extremes. Consultants on the Democratic side seem always to turn out to be liberals in Mr. Klein’s telling, and liberalism itself is usually the sad result of a candidate listening to consultants. What the Democratic Party is in need of is what Mr. Klein calls a “radical middle” that talks truth rather than liberal platitude.
In a 1995 Newsweek story on this “radical middle,” Mr. Klein was specific about what it entailed: “government needs to be replaced,” he wrote then. “It needs to be privatized and voucherized.” (In Politics Lost, it’s worth noting, Mr. Klein puts the word privatize in quotation marks, as though it was another irrational fear of those crazy libs.) And this, presumably, is what Democrats will do when they learn how to be strong and defiant. It’s only when Democrats are most like Republicans on the economic issues—when they offer voters the least amount of choice—that they’re being most radical, most funky, most true to themselves.
You’re probably thinking that a book dedicated to the proposition that campaign consultants have ruined politics would reserve its harshest invective for Bill Clinton, the inventor of “triangulation” and a man who seemed to have no principle he wouldn’t ditch if the polls appeared to be headed the other way. Wrong again! A second persistent theme of Politics Lost is, in fact, the mystical greatness of Bill Clinton, whose appearance in the text is always accompanied by a sudden elevation of the prose style. He wanders by, exaltation commences: Mr. Clinton is a “public genius”; his “innate political sense was better than any poll”; he’s so suffused with funkiness and authenticity as to be a “human Turnip Day”; when consultants work for him, their “efforts” are “inspired” rather than hackneyed; even his 1992 campaign bus tour is said to have been “spectacular,” a tour superior to other tours, a tour that more earthbound, consultant-dazzled Dems try to match but cannot. Mr. Klein does acknowledge a few of the infamous poll-driven stunts in which Mr. Clinton engaged during the Dick Morris period, but gets his hero off the hook by pointing out that Mr. Clinton was always the one in charge—a truism that, were Mr. Klein to apply it consistently to all his subjects, would completely destroy the premise of the book.
The only episodes for which Mr. Klein criticizes Mr. Clinton, of course, are the episodes in which he acted like a liberal—specifically, his first two years as President, when it’s said he tried to “govern from the left” and thereby made possible the Republican triumph of 1994. (After this disaster, the story goes, a wiser Bill Clinton turned away from “class warfare,” moved nobly back to the center, to victory and to the eternal gratitude of his countrymen.)
This brings us to Mr. Klein’s third great theme: When Democrats lose elections, it’s nearly always the fault of boring old liberalism. When they win, on the other hand, it’s nearly always thanks to their centrism. Mr. Klein sticks with this interpretative schema through the most unlikely circumstances. Thus the hapless Kerry campaign of 2004, which seemed at the time to be the very definition of spineless, toothless centrism, was in fact—and unbeknownst to the whole world—dedicated to class-warring “populism” (Mr. Klein’s term for economic liberalism).
Al Gore’s campaign furnishes another unlikely example. Mr. Gore’s entire career in politics may have been that of a consummate “New Democrat”—defending NAFTA on TV, running the “Reinventing Government” initiative, helping found the Democratic Leadership Council, even—but a canny observer like Mr. Klein remembers that for a period in 2000, Mr. Gore’s Presidential campaign adopted the slogan “The People Versus the Powerful” (his consultants “seduced” him into using it), and so the reader is forced to conclude, again, that “populism” had some role in his defeat—along with the related disadvantage of never seeming “like a credible human being.” So important is it, apparently, to answer evidence contradicting this thesis that Mr. Klein dredges up forgotten electoral minutiae like the fact that Mr. Gore actually got a big bounce in the polls after he unveiled the “People Versus the Powerful” slogan in his convention speech: “But it wasn’t so much the words that made it work.” Of course not. What the public was really excited about was the way Al Gore kissed his wife after his convention speech—that, and his choice of the super-centrist Joe Lieberman to be Veep. Everyone loves that guy.
But all this is complicated and difficult to follow. As it happens, there’s a much simpler way to make sense of Politics Lost. It’s this: The Democratic Leadership Council is always right. This is the real master narrative behind this confusing collection of anecdotes. When figures associated with the centrist D.L.C. show up in Mr. Klein’s text, you can be certain they’re going to turn out to be helpful or insightful. They will get the last word in revealing the screw-ups of rival consultants; they will be hailed for their wisdom; they will be greeted as the author’s “best friends in politics.” And to guess how Joe Klein is going to interpret a particular campaign or historical incident, you need only know what the D.L.C. has said about it in the council’s various publications or the op-eds of its leaders. Read deeply enough in the D.L.C.’s works and you will find it all: the straying, chastisement, redemption and eventual sainthood of Bill Clinton; the departure of Al Gore from the path of centrist righteousness and his resulting destruction; the dangerous wrongness of Howard Dean; and even Mr. Klein’s use of the word “populism” to signify economic liberalism of the New Deal/Great Society variety, which is a D.L.C. trademark. Joe Klein loves to gripe about the horrors of partisanship, but he’s the only prominent American journalist I know of who actually follows a political faction’s line in this slavish manner.
The lesser contradictions in Politics Lost probably run into the dozens. There’s only one that deserves mention here. As we have seen, one of the book’s central aims is to demolish the notion that economic liberalism is somehow attractive to voters. In Mr. Klein’s telling, the “populist” appeal to “class warfare” has a track record of failure approaching 100 percent. In fact, he asserts, the only time it ever works is “during tough times, like the Great Depression,” and then only because Franklin Roosevelt was “sweet” and “non-angry.” Today, economic liberalism only continues to show up because of the toxic influence of consultants, who steer good Democrats into the swamp of falseness and away from the example of authenticity set by Harry Truman when he so colorfully invoked “Turnip Day.”
Now, I know it’s customary in D.C. journalism to understand Harry Truman the way Joe Klein does: as a symbol, as a lovable, plain-spoken guy from the “heartland” largely unconnected to actual politics (sort of the way the folkies regarded Woody Guthrie, come to think of it). So maybe it’s a little unfair of me to call attention to what Truman actually said. But Mr. Klein’s repetitive invocation of Truman, plus a little regional pride in the man, compelled me to look up the Turnip Day speech. Having listened to a recording of it, I think Mr. Klein is right in insisting that it be regarded as a model for Democratic candidates. I can also report that what Truman said in the speech is in almost every particular the precise opposite of what Joe Klein advises contemporary Democrats to say.
Harry Truman was no centrist, and neither was he a radical. Still, listening to his ferocious ad-libs back in 1948 (which was, incidentally, not during the Great Depression), his audience could have had few doubts about what the Democratic Party stood for. Truman was explicit: “[T]he Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.” He reveled in what Mr. Klein would call “class war,” calling a Republican tax cut a “rich man’s tax bill” that “helps the rich and sticks a knife into the back of the poor” and describing politics as a contest between the “common everyday man” and the “favored classes,” the “privileged few.” Even more astonishingly, Truman went on to talk policy in some detail, with special emphasis on Mr. Klein’s hated “jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah”: He called for the construction of public housing, an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, a national health-care program and the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. And this sort of high-octane oratory propelled Truman on to win the election in a historic upset.
Joe Klein is not the only one to moan about the polarized age in which we are supposedly living these days, with all the power having gravitated to “the extremes of both left and right,” to use the standard deploring formula. Everyone in pundit-land moans this way, and they can be fairly confident that their buddy the CNN host won’t contradict them when they so moan. But someone needs to rub their faces in the fact that, compared to today’s “polarized” Democratic Party, their lovable old Harry Truman sounds like a fire-breathing anarchist, defending positions so far to the left that we have forgotten that one of the two major parties ever held them. Maybe what ails us isn’t a deficit of authenticity or the pull of the poles; maybe it’s something Truman would have grasped in a Kansas City minute: the power of money, the push of the right. Maybe squishy centrism is the problem, not the solution. And maybe we could use a little more polarization of the Turnip Day variety.
Thomas Frank’s most recent book is What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Owl Books).
Follow Thomas Frank via RSS.