WOULD ARGUE that the 2004 presidential campaign promises
to be one of the more lively, contentious, and interesting
campaigns in recent U.S. history. In February,
several Kennedy School faculty sat down for the Bulletin to
debate some of the issues surrounding the 2004 presidential
race. Panelists included Linda Bilmes, a political consultant
and financial analyst; David Gergen, a political consultant
and presidential advisor to four presidents who directs the
Kennedy Schools Center for Public Leadership; Alex Keyssar,
an historian and social policy analyst; and Tom Patterson,
a political scientist who has been studying campaigns for
more than 30 years. Alex Jones, a journalist and commentator
on the press, who directs the Kennedy Schools Shorenstein
Center, moderated the discussion.
Alex Jones Lets
begin by talking about what the difference is in what people
say they want in election coverage and what they seem to actually
want or what they seem to pay attention to at election time?
Tom Patterson I
think that in election coverage, it is more a question of
timing. The public kicks into this process kind of late. A
lot of newspapers did in-depth profiles of the Democratic
candidates, and as the race started to get connected to what
was happening in Iraq, they did a decent job of making that
connection. The difficulty, in terms of thinking about the
public, is most people dont tune into the race that
early. There was a study that came out recently that looked
at the period from January 1 to the Iowa caucuses, and only
4 percent of the coverage in the national press was about
issues of public policy. In some ways, when you tap the public,
you tap an interest in the horse race. They are interested
in the competition. In terms of their ability to sort out
candidates, the press at that moment was playing more of a
traditional media story, and that was, Who is more likely
to win this thing?
Alex Jones There
are three fundamental kinds of campaign coverage, and two
have sort of gotten conflated into bad campaign coverage,
and one is supposed to be good. The bad are the horse race
coverage and the in-depth profiles that are essentially unearthing
secrets. Then you have the good campaign coverage on issues
of policy and great national concern. Is this really the way
it breaks down? Does the weight of each change in each election?
Alex Keyssar I
think that the horse race coverage has increased in proportion
in part because there is a technology to play with in covering
the horse race. You can talk about polls; you can run your
polls every day or every week. Certainly the digging up and
spreading dirt on your opponents is a venerable tradition
and occupied the press a lot, for example, in the 19th century.
The focus on personalities has also probably gotten stronger
as the office of president has gotten more outsized. And as
the president is being seen less as a representative of a
party and more as an individual, that is something that has
grown in the last 50 to 60 years.
Alex Jones We
are months away from the Democratic Convention, we are even
further away from the real campaign season that starts in
September. How do you see these types of coverage breaking
down, and how do you imagine it breaking down in terms of
Alex Keyssar I
would agree with Tom completely. There were some attempts
that were made fairly early to provide coverage that was more
penetrating. Then it became a horse race. Looking ahead, there
is not going to be another horse race for awhile. We will
have another one in the fall, but the press coverage is going
to have to do something else. My guess is that a lot on personalities
and individual quirks will get attention. To take the third
strand, the good strand, the policy coverage right now has
been very thin. Candidates dont talk very explicitly
about what their policies are. They talk in terms of general
themes and the press reports on them, but policies are hard
to report on. The policies of deficits and taxes seem to be
overwhelmingly important issues, but, in my mind, they are
being under reported.
Alex Jones What
is the policy debate going to be about, such as it is? Is
it going to be, for instance, on the deficit?
Linda Bilmes The way
I look at it, at least 80 percent of the population has already
made up its mind about how it is going to vote. Forty percent
are going to vote for any Democrat and 40 percent are going
to vote for the president. The undecided vote is a maximum
of 20 percent, and that is only 15 percent or 20 percent in
15 or so states. The undecided voter in Massachusetts, for
instance, doesnt count. So, really, what you are looking
at is, what are going to be the policy issues important to
that 15 to 20 percent in the 15 states who tend to be, as
Tom was saying, people who engage late in the process? And
what are the issues that are really important to them that
are going to emerge? I think the number one issue that is
going to emerge is the economy the issue of jobs
because those people are extremely focused on jobs, whether
it is manufacturing jobs, technological jobs, or whatever.
The second issue is a number of social issues, such as gay
marriage, which for the undecided voter in those states are
proxy for what direction we want the country to go in.
David Gergen I
think the election is far more important than just what it
says to the 15 or 20 percent who are undecided. An election
is about whether the candidates take the opportunity to explain
their initiatives for the future and to build public support
for those initiatives, so that they have a wind at their back
when they take office. The mandate is as important as the
victor in terms of governing. It is that mandate that allows
you to govern successfully or unsuccessfully? Yes, you want
to reach out to the undecided, and of course you want to swing
those over. But it is equally important that you build a base
Alex Jones Well,
that may be desirable, but do you think in this situation
we are in, do you think it is possible for this election to
be something more than just a mandate on George Bush?
David Gergen I think
it will be, first and foremost, a referendum on the Bush administration,
how well his team has performed in Iraq and other places.
But it is not just about him personally; it is a referendum
on how the country is doing and on how he is doing. And how
the country is doing goes to the question of his team or his
administration. It is about [John] Ashcroft, [Dick] Cheney,
and a lot of other things. It is not just about George Bush
personally. That is why I think it is a referendum on more
than the individual.
Alex Jones How
has the new Campaign Finance Law affected the campaign? Will
it affect the campaign in a significant way as it goes forward?
David Gergen My sense,
and it is not well informed, is that it has not affected it
very much so far. Both Howard Dean and John Kerry were able
for different reasons to meet their financial needs. Howard
Dean didnt lose because of lack of money, and I dont
think John Kerry won because of his money. Any of the other
candidates, at the end of the day, had they won early, would
have had the money to compete. Wes Clark, John Edwards, and
others did not drop out because of that. How much it is going
to affect it in the future, I dont know. We havent
seen the Bush people start spending their large load of money
yet, and we dont know how that is going to affect it.
The possibility is that theyre going to put a large
hole in the Kerry boat before this is done.
Alex Jones What
is the significance of the part of the Campaign Finance Law
that requires candidates to verbally authorize the campaign
ads that go out with their names attached? Some say that this
has made the campaign advertising less aggressive, less nasty,
it will give a tone that is different.
David Gergen I think
that is likely to be true that the campaign ads that are coming
from the campaign itself are likely to be more positive. It
is impossible to think of Lyndon Johnson appearing on the
Daisy ad in 1964. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine George
W. Bush appearing in a Willie Horton ad. So I would think
we wont see ads like that coming from a campaign.
Alex Jones One
of the things that the media and the campaign both seem to
cooperate in doing is creating a metanarrative.
For example, in the last election, Gore was the liar,
George Bush was dumb. This time around, now that
Kerry clearly is the nominee, the metanarrative that seems
to be emerging is that Kerry is the liberal, and
that George Bush, this time around, gets to be the liar.
Do you agree, and how does a campaign coverage editor resist
that if you are doing a responsible job?
Alex Keyssar I am
not sure I know the answer to the second question about how
to resist it. I think that certainly Kerry will be painted
as the Massachusetts liberal. Those words seem
to be inseparable right now. Whether Bush will be portrayed
as the liar or the destroyer, Im
not sure. I think that there is another ingredient in this;
I disagree slightly with Linda and David. The emphasis, which
I think will affect the coverage, is that I dont think
this is going to be your fathers Oldsmobile kind of
election. I think there is an extraordinary amount of passion
on both sides. The passion and rage on both sides feels very
different than 2000 felt. Even though one of the candidates
is the same, and the difference between Gore and Kerry is
not that great, there is an intensity of sentiment, I suspect,
on both sides. I am not sure it is going to be decided by
15 or 20 percent; I dont know what this electorate is
going to look like and who is going to get galvanized. I think
that is something the press is going to have to stay very
alert to, and I am not exactly sure as to how they do that.
Certainly I think it would be good if political editors could
avoid getting into the kind of simple metanarrative too early.
Linda Bilmes I
dont agree with you, because even if you do have a very,
very intense 40 percent on each side, that 40 percent still
basically gets one vote each.
Alex Keyssar But
50 percent of the population doesnt vote, and we dont
know who is going to tap into any percentage of that.
Linda Bilmes But
we do know that the group that is undecided is unlikely to
be substantially bigger, and in the places where the intensity
is the biggest, they tend to be in the states, I would argue,
the least swinging states. So there is passionate
intensity in Massachusetts, but even if the voter turn out
is three times what it was last time in Massachusetts, it
is still the same amount of electoral votes. So I agree with
you that there is this intensity, but despite that, the group
in the middle is basically going to vote the way they always
vote, which is, politicians are sort of bad, and we
dont necessarily like this whole process, but were
going to vote because we need to.
Alex Jones Something
thats new in this election is that even though we had
the Internet in the last presidential campaign, what we have
this time around is a more mature blogging environment in
which bloggers are going to be increasingly part of the news
cycle. In light of the fact that some of the networks say
they arent going to come to the conventions, does this
development suggest this is going to be a campaign covered
differently by the media?
Tom Patterson Like
a lot of observers, I am still trying to get a fix on things
like blogging and Internet organizations and the like. Its
obviously changing. For me, the blogging hasnt risen
to that point where it is a large force in American politics.
I think that the major impact in the Democratic nominating
race was, by far, the major media, not the new media. When
Howard Deans coverage turned very sour in late December
and through Iowa (one study found it went about 2 to 1 negative),
I think he self-destructed, but he had a little bit of help
along the way. So I think the major media is still the big
player, and these other players are still evolving. We are
primarily in the old politics and on the threshold of something
David Gergen I
was stunned by the story that came out a couple of days ago
about the I have a Scream speech, which emphasizes
your point that the old media is still having more impact,
especially cable. The proliferation of cable 24/7, the quality
of news coverage is so far having more impact than the Internet.
In the four days after Dean gave that speech, it was shown
on television 633 times, just on broadcast. That was just
Alex Jones What
should John Kerry do about the issue of gay marriage? This
has emerged as an issue that he is not going to be able to
David Gergen He should
ensure, first and foremost, that he has control of the platform
because the Democratic platform may commit the party to a
position that is untenable for him, and so he needs to make
sure that his people are riding the platform. I think he would
personally be well served by courage on the issue and by not
coming up with a compromise that seems to have it both ways.
Linda Bilmes I
think that the issue has not been put fully in perspective.
For example, virtually every country in Europe has legalized
gay marriage already, and there have been actually very few
gay marriages. I totally agree with David to come out forcefully
and say, This is the right thing to do and Im
for it. Were going to do it and thats it.
That would show an enormous amount of leadership on his part.
But secondly, I think the issue should be put in perspective,
not necessarily by him, but by surrogates who say, Look,
weve got 40 million people in the country who dont
have health insurance, we have 20 million people who cant
pay their drug bills. Lets put this in perspective.
If I were his handler, I would make sure hes got his
30-second-sound bite down pat. Yes, Im supportive
(or whatever his position is), and then turn to what
Linda is talking about, that this issue is not a primary issue
of presidential politics. I think the community that is harder
to think about is the Hispanic community because there is
a broader social conservatism there and that makes the issue
somewhat more unpredictable than in other communities.
Linda Bilmes Speaking
as the Hispanic here, I think that the Hispanic community
is very concerned about the class issue. The real issue for
Hispanics in Arizona and New Mexico and Southern California
is, is the American Dream still possible? We are working our
bones off now, but are our kids going to have access to the
American dream, or are we going to be a permanent underclass?
So I really think it comes down to a necessity for Kerry to
marginalize the gay marriage issue, because that is just not
the core, critical voting issue for the Hispanic community.
And if he thinks it is, he is missing the boat for where the
community is at.