If I’d had $1,000 to spare, the freedom to blow off a day of work and the cost of plane fare from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., I could have met presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, probably gotten photographed with her and listened to her speak on her perceptions of “domestic security.”
She and other members of Congress hosted a noon luncheon for donors at the law firm of Jones Day. After that, I could have participated in an hour of “policy discussions.” But I didn’t get an invitation. I’ll bet you didn’t, either.
I didn’t get an e-mail from David L. Mercer, the president of Mercer & Associates Inc., a political consulting and public strategies firm. The e-mail said, according to The New York Times:
Iâ€™d like to offer you a rare opportunity to take part in an in-depth discussion with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and top lawmakers from around Washington, D.C. [The lunch would be an] excellent opportunity to contribute the maximum to Senator Clinton and her campaign to restore American strength.
That’s one helluva campaign theme: “contribute the maximum.” Given a professor’s salary, I’m not surprised I was not an honored and invited check-writer.
The carping between candidate Clinton’s campaign and her principal challengers is well under way.
An e-mail from presidential candidate John Edwards’ campaign said candidate Clinton’s luncheon portrayed her as a â€œposter childâ€ for â€œwhat is wrong in Washington” and that “too many in office have fallen under the spell of campaign money at any cost.” Then, of course the Clinton campaign reaches into its bucket of slime and tosses this back at candidate Edwards: â€œIncreasingly negative attacks against other Democrats arenâ€™t going to end the war, deliver universal health care or turn John Edwardsâ€™ flagging campaign around.â€
These idiots are missing the point. Both the candidates and the press that dutifully records the slime and counter-slime just don’t get it: The candidates for national office do not speak directly with the citizenry â€”they speak only with the tiny percentage with the biggest wallets. The rest of us get the targeted leavings paid for by those big wallets.
I didn’t get to meet presidential candidate Clinton. Or candidate Edwards. Or candidate Romney. Or candidate McCain. Or any of the others who are wedded to fundraisers and a schedule of scripted and press-mediated gotcha debate opportunities.
I have met in person â€” shaken hands, talked with â€” only two presidential candidates: the late Sen. Paul Tsongas and former Gov. Michael Dukakis. And that’s only because they were Massachusetts politicians, and I was a Massachusetts journalist who met them long before their presidential aspirations took hold. I admired Sen. Tsongas; I rued Gov. Dukakis.
Yet 17 viable presidential candidates want my vote. In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters actually meet the candidates. This is the famous face of “retail” politics. Candidates trudge from diner to diner to meet the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They kiss the babies and get their pictures taken with the locals.
But what about those potential voters who live in the wholesale states? Campaign planes touch down in these states momentarily in half a dozen cities in a single day before those planes carry the candidates off to another wholesale state.
Voters states in wholesale states are deluged with “robo-calls” â€” computer-dialed and -delivered political messages that usually sling mud at another candidate. The candidates appear at fundraisers only long enough to collect the checks from smiling bundlers (who may or may not have passed criminal background checks). And maybe they’ll spend a half hour having their pictures taken with those who get invited to actually meet the candidate â€” at a $1,000 per picture.
Come primaries and the general election, most of us are left with only press-mediated impressions of these [insert favorite pejorative term here]. Oh, I suppose we could read the blarney posted on their campaign Web sites. And we could read what bloggers have to say (and how many credible bloggers have actually met the candidates?). We could read the ponderous pontifications about these politicians written by syndicated pundits for the nation’s bland, boring op-ed pages.
Heavens, we could even learn about them from those political action groups (you know, the 527s and so forth) that have no official affiliation with the candidates, groups that pull in tons of soft money. You know, the groups that made swift boat into a verb and a general of the army into a traitor.
I won’t be able to shake these presidential candidates’ hands and look ’em in the eye. Instead, I’ll be micro-targeted as a specific demographic type gleaned from their data mining of consumer and personal data. I will be for them only the amalgam of keywords in a database.
The candidates will “[t]ake corporate America’s love affair with learning everything it can about its customers, and its obsession with carving up the country into smaller and smaller clusters of like-minded consumers, and turn those trends into a political strategy” â€” which is what pollster Alex Gage to advised Karl Rove in 2002 to insure the re-election of President Bush in 2004.
The candidates will tell me what to do and think about their rivals through “crash ads,” in which a candidate’s operative might, for example, “[drive] around New Hampshire with a digital camera and a singular mission: finding a way to discredit John McCain with voters in the state’s upcoming primary.” The footage gained could used almost immediately to produce a negative campaign ad after an opponent’s gaffe-filled appearance or press conference. (Can you say “Macaca,” Sen. Allen?)
Or the candidates might send a micro-targeted message to me through their OPOs â€” online political operatives who believe the Internet offers “a strategy, a whole new way of campaigning, a form of communication, from blogs to MySpace to YouTube, with far more potential than the old media of print and television.”
I’ve long felt that to national political campaigns, I am merely precisely sorted data. I am not a person with a vote. I am a marketing segment to be targeted, and that cultivation does not allow me the opportunity to get past the mediated version of a candidate’ persona, purpose and policies. I will not know them, and they will not know me.
It’s not entirely the candidates’ fault. We, the electorate, should have complained a helluva lot more when big money began flowing into politics in the 1980s. We should have recognized the nasty trickery of the Deavers and the Atwaters and the Roves and the DeLays. We didn’t, because they were really, really good at the twin political arts of corrosive deception and corruptive arm-twisting.
But, at the moment, candidates are gaming a political system that isn’t about serving the needs of the nation or its citizenry as much as it is about obtaining and keeping power â€” and then arrogantly revealing to us what our needs and wants actually are as those in power see them.
If we the people do not believe that members of Congress and the president know and understand us, why on earth do we tolerate that? How we expect them to act in our â€” and we are the nation, not them â€” best interests if they only know us through the push polls and targeted marketing?
Remember the book about Richard Nixon’s campaign, “The Selling of the President 1968” by Joe Mcginnis?
Nothing’s changed, people. … Well, actually, it has. Things are much worse.