Theme Wars 2000
It was yet another Washington confab where Democrats gathered in a hotel to ponder their prospects. Well-dressed lobbyists milled about--Blue Cross/Blue Shield chatted with IBM, AT&T with MCI WorldCom--and the nation's prominent political journalists kibitzed, waiting for the key moment of the day. In between the usual yada-yada-yada from the podium that December morning, Vice President Al Gore was due to deliver a high-concept speech in which he would unveil the philosophical essence of his presidential campaign.
Gore began with boilerplate, citing his Administration's accomplishments (a "revitalized economy," welfare reform and "tough new punishment" for crime). Then--thud!--the Big Thought landed: "The great insight of our time is the fact of our mutuality, our connection to one another. The old ways that didn't work saw only separate, competing entities.... In this 'us versus them' thinking of the recent past, a vision of the common good struggles mightily--often futilely--to transcend the whole. But transcend we must.... Today, I challenge America to raise that banner with a new 'practical idealism' for the twenty-first century."
"Practical idealism"--that was why Gore must be the next President. He went on to call for saving Social Security, preserving abortion rights, bolstering public education, improving urban planning and resisting restraints on free trade. The man who once idealistically declared, "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," said little about the environment. And his explanation of "practical idealism" was thin: "An approach that recognizes the limits imposed by fiscal discipline, but reaches for limitless new possibilities in our economy, in our schools, in our environment. An approach that applies the values of the past to the amazing opportunities of the future."
After the speech, aides fanned out among the reporters to spin. I asked one to define "practical idealism" without using either word. "Connections and wholeness are fundamentally Gore," she said. "You put yourself in a different position, if you are looking differently, if you are looking at something as a whole." She continued: "How do we make sure the future is affecting us in a positive way? We are rolling into the twenty-first century. We have to be practical"--whoops--"about how we move forward. It is a future-oriented approach."
But where's the "it"? What's the "it"? What happened to Gore's plain-English initiative?
The Gore aide supplied an example of whatever it was she was talking about. Imagine if religious leaders, after-school officials and police representatives met "at the same table" to figure out how to prevent crime. "What Gore does is create the table.... He does this with other issues, too. He gets everyone at the table and focuses on what works. If you're going to make it in the twenty-first century, you have to get to the table." No superhighway. No bridge to the next century. The operative metaphor is a piece of furniture. As for the details, she added, Gore "has two years to do that."
After she trotted off, I turned to the fellow next to me and inquired, "Did you understand that?" He shook his head and replied, "I was going to ask you."
Welcome to Theme Wars 2000. The already-galloping presidential campaign is dominated more than ever by money and management. The consensus among politicos is that a candidate will have to bag at least $20 million by the end of 1999 to ante up as a serious player. With the primary process front-loaded--mainly because of California's decision to move its all-important primary to early March--contenders will require loads of early money and extensive organization. Though the frantic cash scramble may be the decisive factor that shapes the contest, there's another element candidates cannot ignore: message. In the retail marketplace of politics, it is not a sufficient rallying cry to claim, "I can raise the bucks and I have the right connections to local party hacks." A candidate needs a message that is noble-sounding. It must contain a strategic component--an appeal to an identifiable bloc of voters--for packaging is positioning. A slogan that fits on a bumper sticker or book cover helps. As candidates and near-candidates are dialing for dollars and hitting up local party officials for support, they are also test-marketing themes.