May 9, 2006

Were the last two presidential elections "more about biography than about a view of government or a vision of the future for this country"?

That's what Representative Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, referring to the current efforts of Democrats to define the party's vision:
"The conversations we're having now are essential," in part, he argued, because the last two presidential elections "were more about biography than about a view of government or a vision of the future for this country."
I don't remember the last two elections being "about biography." Maybe in the last election, beginning with the Democratic Convention, the Democrat's side of the campaign was "about biography." Really, what is Emanuel talking about?


Dave said...

No idea what Emanuel is talking about.

FWIW, his brother is Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood agent, and on whom the Entourage character Ari Gold is allegedly based.

Perhaps it's genetic? After all, who blows more hot air than Hollywood agents?

Danny said...

He's talking about Swift Boat and each candidate's experience with Vietnam.

Michael Farris said...

The idea is that voters don't necessarily weigh issues or candidates' stands on issues and vote according to what they and candidates think about issues.

Many people (not all, maybe not even most, but many) vote on vague ideas of self-identification. That is, they vote for the candidate they think is the most like the person they'd like to be (or be able to count as a friend). The ideal American candidate is an optimistic alpha male who's comfortable wielding power and has a sense of humor about himself (up to a point).
In recent times Reagan and Clinton come closest to this profile.

You may think the theory has no validity* but that's probably what he's referencing.

*I think there's a lot of truth to it, though it doesn't explain all elections by any means.

Sloanasaurus said...

I suppose you could argue that the whole fraudulent national guard memo fiasco made the campaign about biography....

"Fake but accurate." This is one of my all time favorite phrases. It sums up the idiocy of the left.

The last campaign was about war.

The Democrats think they can take the Congress... can they?

Lets face it. Bush supporters are pissed at him over immigration. The other issues are just talking points. However, the base is not necessarily pissed at the House over this issue and may actually be motivated to come out and vote for Republican congressional candidates over immigration because the democratic candidates support Bush's position. I think democrats will be in for a surprise is the campaigns start this fall.

I still support Bush overall, but he needs to wake up on immigration. Build the wall Mr. Bush!

Ann Althouse said...

Danny: Gore ran on biography, not substantive policy?

Ann Althouse said...

"The ideal American candidate is an optimistic alpha male who's comfortable wielding power and has a sense of humor about himself (up to a point)."

Alpha male? Call to Gore to wear brown clothing!

Meade said...

What he's talking about is Democrats' need for opening their eyes and getting a vision thing instead of just talking about opening their eyes and getting a vision thing.

Now if he himself could only open his own eyes, quit 'framing' every issue, and get some kind of real vision... thing.

Joe said...

If Emanuel is not talking about personalities of the candidates then I have no idea what he means.
In 2000, Gore just blew it, having had the benefit of incumbency, the illusion of peacetime and a still decent economy. He was just such an awful candidate. 2004 was a referendum on the war. The voters saw Bush - not surprisingly - as the better leader by far, stronger and more decisive than the flip-flopper.
Appeasement is not a strategy for national defense, nor is entrusting our security to the UN, and until the Democrats learn that, they will continue to lose elections.

paul a'barge said...

Ann: "Danny: Gore ran on biography, not substantive policy?"

You can always eviscerate a generalization with a counterpoint.

I think what makes Emanuel's observations interesting is that they point out just how "in the eye of the beholder" these kinds of observations are. For Emanuel, his take-away was the biography slant (Danny is right on the money here). For GWB, the election was about the war. For Karl Rover, the election was about winning.

For me, the election was about the importance of letting as few Democrats as possible get near the levers of power in this country.

Chacun a son gout!

Danny said...

Oops, I didn't see that Emanual included the 2000 election as well. I don't remember much from six years ago but, other than the whole blowing coke at college thing, I don't remember any biographical issues from 2000.

Nonetheless, I disagree with Emanual on both accounts and it is a joke to think that Kerry had a "vision of the future for this country". I don't know who is encouraging Kerry to stick around and give press conferences, but I wish they would nudge him into retirement. He vaguely reminds me of David Brent from The Office, trying to fit in where he is no longer relevant and providing sound bytes that ooze of awkwardness.

SteveR said...

What I hear is the reason "we" lost the last two presidential elections is that Gore and Kerry aren't as smooth as his old boss Clinton. Did we really know about Bill Clinton's "view of government or a vision of the future for this country"? Only more than Gore and Kerry to the extent we could stay awake and listen.

Generally what I hear from Emanuel comes across as so much B.S.

dick said...

I think he is saying that the dems have no program or vision and so they are going to try to paint the opposition as being in the same boat. Won't work. Dems still don't have a program or vision.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do think that that was Kerry's problem. To some great extent, he did try to run on his biography, i.e., his Vietnam service, and really never put together a coherant set of policies, most notably, on national security (given the ongoing WoT). Just saying that he would do a better job is not a philosphy or a vision.

This was not nearly so important for Gore, since his race was pre-9/11, and he could run on the good parts of Clinton's Administration. So, his campaign could be understood as an extension of the Clinton boom, only a lot cleaner and less venal.

Bush on the other hand, was able to point at his six years as governor of Texas. Maybe not as impressive, but still sufficient.

But four years later, Kerry couldn't do that. Bush was the one running on a record, and Kerry's job was to convince people that he could do a better job. But Kerry had the problem that he didn't have a record, despite 20 years in the Senate, except for his fairly liberal voting record. No major legislation named after him, etc. So, he was left trying to convince the American public that they should vote for him based on his biography, and it failed.

tommy said...

It's a derivative of the thinking that if it were about the issues, they would have won, so it has to be about something else.

There is a refusal to accept the possibility it was about the issues, and they lost.

Seven Machos said...

In 2000, Bush ran on tax cuts and Social Security and education reform, and on his conservatism. Now, and this is not rhetorical because I really want to know: name me one substantive policy issue Gore centered his campaign around. As I remember it, Gore ran AWAY from Clinton and tried to distance himself from Clinton, while simultaenously trying to claim the mantle of the Clinton, but his campaign was a policy void.

Kerry's campaign was definitely a policy void. I mean, really: what did Kerry stand for, except for his three-month stint in Vietnam and the fact that he was not President Bush. What were the core policies he would have enacted as president? I'm pretty sure no one can name any.

I personally like Rahn Emanual and I think what he may have been trying to say is that the DEMOCRATS have been trying to run on biographies instead of policies, and failing miserably. But you can't just say that. So you couch it in an argument that both parties are doing the biography thing.

Bruce Hayden said...


I don't think that Kerry came across as as much of an appeaser during the 2004 election cycle as he has since then. My impression was that his major foreign relations position was that he would just do a better job, and would consult with our allies more. I should note that his deadline a while back is only 6 days away, and I think that we can see in retrospect how silly it seems.

But Kerry did have some baggage that no other candidate would have had, and that was his actions after returning home a hero after his Vietnam service. If Kerry had come back and just gone to law school, he might have won the election. But he pushed cutting and running, testified to mostly fraudulent atrocities before Congress, and met with the enemy in France. I think this had two negative effects. First, it left the impression with many that he might cut and run in Iraq. And, probably more importantly, it alienated a lot of Vietnam vets, maybe enough of them to have lost the election. I know several such who held their noses and voted for Bush, voting Republican for the first time in their lives, and it was all becase of what Kerry did as a major spokesman for the anti-Vietnam war protests. Far better, I think, if the Democrats had nominated Bob Kerrey, former Neb. governor (where he had a good reputation for fiscal responsibility) and two time Senator, who was a Navy Seal in Vietnam and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Instead of losing the Vietnam vet vote, he would have gotten a lot of it.

amn said...

I would agree with Emanuel if he used the term personality instead of biography. 2000 and 2004 were both close elections despite the fact that the Democratic candidates had some pretty serious failings. I have no doubt that a Democratic candidate who was seen as likeable and decisive and ran on the same issues as Gore or Kerry would have won.

Richard Dolan said...

Emanuel is a smart and sophisticated observer, but also one trained in Clintonian triangulation. So it probably makes sense to pay attention to what he says, but to take it all with more than one grain of salt.
When he says that the last two elections were "more about biography," I think he means primarily that the Dem campaign in both elections was dominated by those concerns.

That was certainly the approach by the Kerry campaign in 2004, from the primaries (who was "most electable" was the way it was usually expressed at that stage, and they meant that in a PR way), through the Dem convention with all the military trappings, the "reporting for duty" meme, and into the initial stage of the campaign, until the Swift Vets (among others) made it politically untenable. Part of the reason was that the Dems and their friends in the MSM echo chamber talked themselves into believing (at least up to their convention) that any Dem candidate with a military record (three Purple Hearts!) could beat the draftdodger-in-chief. Even when the Swift Vets made that pitch far more problematic than the Dems had expected, the Kerry campaign had a lot of trouble trying to change the focus from biography to issues, basically because on the policy issues, particularly relating to the GWOT and Iraq, there was a gaping split between the candidate and the Dem base (to say nothing of the electorate as a whole). As the campaign wore on, Kerry tried to shift to an issues based message, but those fundamental divisions (to say nothing of the candidate's many obvious weaknesses) kept getting in the way. Bush and the Reps, in contrast, were clear, focused and on-message. He didn't have to make "biography" the center of his campaign, since the personal contrast with Kerry said all the his campaign needed to say on that score.

In 2000, the dominating biography was Clinton, not Gore. Gore spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to get out from under Clinton and all his baggage. Gore himself kept trying on new personalities, pretty much as others try on a new suit. In that campaign, with peace and prosperity going for them, the Dems believed that, if they could just get past the Clinton baggage, the Dem ticket would win. Since that baggage was all personal, not policy oriented, the focus was on making Gore the anti-Clinton. Like Kerry but for different reasons, Gore's policy positions never came to domninate the campaign. Gore almost won, not because of any policy views or proposals, but because of the final weekend's "breaking" story (planted and pushed by the Gore team) about Bush's DWI problems in Maine as a young man. As in 2004, part of Gore's problem in making issues the dominant theme of his campaign was the deep splits in the Dem base, exacerbated by the years of Clintonian triangulation after the disaster of 1994.

I suspect that Emanuel is looking for a way to transcend those divisions in the Dem base, because his political instincts say that the target of opportunity is the poll-tested desire by the electrorate for "a different direction." Thus, he's trying to focus on issues that will provide that "different direction" while still uniting the base and downplaying the issues that divide it. That's going to be hard to do, since the Dems are probably more divided than the Reps on those policy issues -- Iraq/Iran/GWOT, entitlements, educ reform/teacher union demands, immigration, you name it. I suspect it will all evolve into the usual Dem themes -- the Reps are out to gut Social Security, Dems need to repeal the "tax cuts for the rich," no more catering to fat cat interests like Haliburton, let's focus on the homefront rather than all these tiresome and ungrateful creeps in the MidEast, etc. None of that would ever get me to support the Dem team, but I doubt that I'm the audience they are targeting.

DaveG said...

I agree with Bruce.

Kerry's problem wasn't strategic; he could have run on his biography and won, had his biography not shown him to be a pretty reprehensible person.

Personally, I was 'Anybody but Bush," right up until Kerry "reported for duty." I immediately became 'Anybody but Bush, as long as it isn't Kerry.'

I doubt if I was alone.

Seven Machos said...

Any Democrat who Americans had generally trusted on the war would have won. Lieberman. Kerrey perhaps. There aren't many, which is the problem for the Democrats.

Henry said...

DaveG -- That's close to what happened to me. "Reporting to Duty" wasn't the tipping point, but it sure summed up the posturing awfulness of Kerry's candidacy.

Oddly enough, GWB strikes me as an almost anti-biographical candidate. His life story is devoid of dramatic content. He's not the man from Hope. He isn't a war hero. His resume is unimpressive, outside of his current job. Most of his biography is either humdrum (average student, devoted husband) or negative (failed businessman, one-time drunk).

In that he had no biography to bring up, he was luckier than the Democracts who confused biography with personality and lost. If biography really was the difference maker, especially military biography, Clinton would have lost to GHWB and lost again to Bob Dole. Hell, George McGovern would have beat Richard Nixon in that alternate universe.

Coco said...

I think Richard Dolan is spot on at least as to the 2004 election. From the Democrats primaries, biography, as in electability, was the key. Dean was the only Dem candidate who had an actual articulated position or vision that really set himself apart (actually Ohio Denny had a vision too but not one that mattered in any political sense). Both Kerry and Wesley Clark were pure "war hero" candidates - guys who could presumably criticize Bush's execution of the war with the shield of the military experience to back them up. Kerry did run on his war record until it became a negative for him. I think that's what Emmanual meant - that they chose a candidate based on his resume rather than ideas.

The Bush camp also made Kerry's resume/bio a big part of their media war focus. And the idea that many voters made their choice based on Kerry's biography certainly seems plausible based on the highly scientific sampling on this discussion forum :)

Joe said...

Bruce, my reference to appeasement was more directed to the Democratic party of today rather then Kerry in particular, to the extent that the party leadership seems ready to cut and run on the cusp of victory (see Captain's Quarters today, on the captured al qaeda documents which indicate that they are losing this war in all respects except the propaganda war in the US media).
Anyway, I suggest that you can find a Kerry quote to support any position on any issue that you want. And that was his problem.

Ann Althouse said...

Seven Machos: "In 2000, Bush ran on tax cuts and Social Security and education reform, and on his conservatism. Now, and this is not rhetorical because I really want to know: name me one substantive policy issue Gore centered his campaign around. As I remember it, Gore ran AWAY from Clinton and tried to distance himself from Clinton, while simultaenously trying to claim the mantle of the Clinton, but his campaign was a policy void."


(Come on, Gore is a policy wonk. He had policies. He just lacked personal warmth.)

Walt said...

Agree with Ann on this one. Gore bored the nation with his policy ideas. Unfortunately, it was a feel good time that didn't require policy. Now, we need some good policies, and I don't see either party offering any. Instead, they insist on blaming the other tehe other party for lacking vision while the wait in line at the bank to cash their checks from the same lobbyist groups.

Ah, where have you gone Joe DiMaggio . . .

Seven Machos said...

Fair enough. I honestly couldn't remember any.

I do disagree that Republicans don't have great policy ideas. Republicans are still the party of ideas right now. It's just that too many Republicans in Congress seems to have become beholden to special interests who have favor the status quo. I still have this fantasy that they are saving immigration for a big pay-off at the election. But that's just a fantasy.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that was it with Gore. He did have policies, a lot of them. He still does. A lot of them. But I frankly don't remember any of them from the 2000 election. And that is probably because he wasn't able to turn them into sound bites that would sell to the voters.

Right now, my general impression of him is that he is mostly saying these days that global warming is bad, we are causing it, we need to spend trillions of dollars and give up our SUVs, fossil fuel, etc.

I am sure I am misstating his policy, but not quite sure how, which I think was part of his problem.

And, yes, this is quite different from Kerry, whom I really don't know where he really stands on much of anything, except that somehow, through his innate brilliance (despite arguably being not even as smart as Bush), he would do better.

tjl said...

Bruce said: "this is quite different from Kerry, whom I really don't know where he really stands on much of anything."

It's true, from Kerry's campaign you would never have the slightest idea what he would actually have done if elected. The answer becomes clear only If you review his voting record during his (inexplicably) many terms in the Senate. Kerry never deviated from the liberal doctrines crystallized circa 1968, accurately reflecting the views of most Massachusetts voters.
Kerry correctly saw that this stance would never work in the general election, as it was too tame for the Deaniac base and too left for most of the country. So he shamelessly fudged on the issues, running an essentially content-free campaign.