David Gergen on Policy Issues and the 2012 Presidential Race

Interviewed by Doug Gavel, November 18, 2011

The 2012 election cycle is in full swing with many incumbents fighting for their political lives amidst difficult economic times. The economy has dominated much of the conversation on the campaign trail, but the candidates are also positioning themselves on many other contentious issues. David Gergen, public service professor of public leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership, has served as a White House advisor for four U.S. presidents.

Q: What are the most critical issues that the candidates need to address in the 2012 campaign?

Gergen: Three issues will be central to this campaign: jobs, jobs and jobs. The middle class in this country is under enormous pressure. Many have fallen into lower working class; many don't have jobs. They demand and they really are angry that system is stacked again them. What united the Tea Party and the Occupy movement was a sense that the system is addressed against them, and candidates really need to address that.

Concern is in part embedded in a bigger sense of issues, not only about the slowdown of the great American job machine and the recession and the disappearance of the middle, but also a growing sense that America may be in decline and we are threatened as a nation. Candidates are going to have to address those underlying anxieties, but most importantly how we're going to create new jobs in the future.

Q: How has the political discourse been affected by the growing influence of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Gergen: The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have both changed the conversation in this country — and I think for the better.

The Tea Party has placed a big emphasis on how big government is, and particularly how deeply in debt we are and I think brought on the debt ceiling fight in Washington that was so messy during the summer.

The number of protesters may diminish over time, but there's no question that the Occupy movement has created a much sharper national focus on income inequality — the widening gap between the top one percent and the other 99 percent — which is so socially dangerous. That has begun to capture the imagination of the country. You can often monitor how the national conversation is evolving by looking at the covers of the news magazines. Time Magazine was running debt covers several months ago, and just recently ran an income inequality issue. So there is no doubt that both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements are changing the dialogue. Personally, I find some aspects of both unattractive, but I applaud them for forcing us to look more clearly at some of the deeper, structural challenges we have.

Q: Is there room in the current political landscape for moderate pragmatists? How can they gain traction at a time when the political system seems so polarized?

Gergen: The political polarization in this country has deepened and widened and is much more poisonous now than during most of the postwar period. Many of us who have been around for decades are just appalled by what we see. It's so hard to get anything done in Washington. People demonize each other and the middle has largely disappeared. The founders understood that our politics would be contentious — see the Federalist papers — and thought the art of leadership was to help reconcile opposing views. That's why George Washington kept calling for a spirit of accommodation and James Madison tried to calm the passions of a growing democracy. For most of our history we have composed our differences but not now — and the consequences for the country could precipitate a serious national decline.

If you're a member of either party today, especially in the House of Representatives, your biggest concern about holding on to power is whether you will be taken out by an opponent in a primary who outflanks you, who is more extreme than you are. We saw that in 2008 when Utah Republican Bob Bennett, a respected conservative, was defeated in the primary because the voters didn't feel he was hard line enough. It happened in Delaware where a highly popular, well regarded mainstream Republican was defeated from the right in the primary despite having broad support for the general election.

However, it is possible that the Tea Party may have started to crest. Look at two candidates who were threatened a few months ago — Indiana Republican Richard Lugar and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch — both of whom have impeccable credentials but who also faced the possibility of a tough opponent in the primary. But right now both Hatch and Lugar seem to be safe and on course for reelection. That suggests that maybe the Tea Party influence is waning a little bit, but obviously you can't count it out. We will have a better handle during the next 12 months.

I do believe — or-at least, I sure hope — that fundamentally over the long term the country is going to change its political culture. The population is going to be more willing to support moderate candidates, but we may need a real changing of the guard to accomplish that. We might have to elect some new people into political office who are willing to go down a more moderate middling path and work across the aisle. You see a few examples right now of statesmen emerging in the Congress, including Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. Those people should be celebrated for trying to create a healthier political culture.

Q: Do the best communicators make the best political candidates? How important is the skill to success in American politics?

Gergen: I think the capacity to communicate well is necessary but not sufficient to govern well. In recent years, with television and social media becoming dominant forces in American society, the ability to reach out and communicate effectively and to form emotional ties with people, to win their respect, is a very important threshold talent to possess as a political candidate.

The Republicans are not going to nominate someone for president this year who cannot go up against President Obama in the debates. They know that would be self defeating. That's why candidates like Rick Perry have been falling by the wayside while Newt Gingrich has surged. Even so, rhetorical skill alone isn't enough for public leadership. Barack Obama won the presidency largely through his extraordinary talent on the stump but once in office has disappointed many of his own followers through a lack of executive experience. So yes, having the ability to communicate effectively is important, but by itself is not a guarantee of success.

Q: What are the ways in which the Internet and social media have affected political communication strategy in recent years?

Gergen: In the 1990s, Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, told me that as soon as the elections of 2000 the Internet would be as important to winning the White House as television was to Jack Kennedy in 1960. He was slightly premature, but things are certainly heading in the direction he foresaw. It is important today for a candidate for any office to have an arsenal of communication techniques at his or her command, and those include the Internet. We've also seen that social media can mobilize an awful lot of young people, as it did with the Obama campaign in 2008. It will be fascinating to watch Americans Elect this coming year to see if they can nominate an alternative presidential ticket through the Internet. So it's a political weapon of consequence will likely play an increasingly significant role.

Q: What is your assessment of the 2012 presidential race thus far?

Gergen: The electorate is clearly frustrated and increasingly angry about the breakdown of our politics. I don't think anyone knows who is going to win the presidential race. For many voters, a sense is dawning that our choices could well be disappointing — having to choose "the evil of two lessers," as the joke goes.

The central question for me is not who will win but whether the winner can govern. Can the winner forge a new national consensus that will help us break out of our political deadlocks and get the country moving again? Can the winner make America a more positive force for good in the world? I wish I could be more optimistic than I am about the next few years.

Still, for those of us discouraged about the near-term future, there are a lot of reasons why we should feel more hopeful about the mid and long-term prospects for the United States. This remains an enormously resilient, innovative nation – a people who have a history of self-correcting when we go off course. We are already seeing the emergence of fresh political leaders at the local and state level who are creating communities of hope. We are also seeing a rise of social entrepreneurs who are devoting themselves to social change, increasingly joined by young military veterans fresh from serving the country overseas and who now want to continue their mission back home. Bismarck famously said that God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America. I would like to believe that is still true.

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