Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What It Takes

At the repeated urging of Jonathan Bernstein, I finally read Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. And you know what? It's excellent. It's a very detailed behind-the-scenes look at most of the major candidates in the 1988 presidential election, including Dole, Bush, Gephardt, Biden, Hart, and Dukakis. The stories are wonderful. The candidates' backgrounds are fascinating -- I was surprised how many of them dealt with a serious illness or death of a loved one (Bush's daughter, Biden's wife, Dukakis' brother, Gephardt's son), not to mention Dole's own personal travails.

The book is very much not political science, but it contains a ton of evidence that political scientists would find useful. I got the impression that there's enough material there to write another The Party Decides, although the book just isn't organized that way. Take, for example, this discussion of Gephardt's campaign:
When you got down to it, [Gephardt] meant to run Jimmy Carter's campaign -- twelve years later, different issues, new wrinkles, but still, he meant to hike the trail that Carter blazed. He would come out of nowhere, win Iowa... get the bump... and then the hot light would hit. Dick had to be ready. He had to know how to run in the South, how to make his campaign truly national; had to know what the press would do, how to get the money while his name was hot, how to tie down the pols who meant to ride with a winner... how to build momentum until his nomination, like Carter's, could not be stopped.
So he sought Carter's advice, and he followed it. He started early. He made sure his contact with Iowans was not only broad, but deep -- and deeply personal. Thought his money was tight, he staffed not only Iowa and New Hampshire, but offices in several southern states. He picked his campaign team, and he backed it -- even in the worst times, he never second-guessed. He worked small towns, and corn boils, church picnics, county fairs... he did everything, in short, that Jimmy Carter did... did it just as hard, and much longer... and with two months before the Iowa caucus, he could see... it hadn't worked worth a damn.
Others, including the authors of The Party Decides, have pointed out how the 1970s were an atypical era in presidential politics where a bandwagoning candidate could actually put together a campaign on his own and win the nomination, and how that approach stopped working by the 1980s. And here's Cramer hitting the same point back in 1988. Pretty cool.

Now, Cramer grants a much more powerful role to the media than most political scientists do today. And the media really do not come off very well. Respected journalists like E.J. Dionne are depicted buying into pack journalistic mentalities and grilling Gary Hart about his affairs because "everybody knows" he has a problem. What's more, the candidates seem to react to this press coverage. Hart and Biden are seen as pulling out of the race because the media would not leave them alone about Donna Rice and plagiarism, respectively. You can almost see Bill Clinton reading this book in 1990 and saying, "So all I have to do is ignore them and I can still win the race? Piece of cake."

The political media clearly have their own agenda separate from that of the parties, and they can seem quite feckless at times. But these stories aren't always wrong. Bill Clinton really did have a character problem, one that ended up dominating much of his second term in office. But Cramer presents evidence of pretty good people being driven from public life by nasty, personal media coverage based on little factual content, and it's hard to defend that.

Anyway, the book is definitely worth the read.

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