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The brilliant Ed Kilgore of newdonkey.com has a fascinating post, ostensibly challenging the idea that what Democrats need is not so much a message but a messenger. In the end, though, I think he provides some support for the very idea he's trying to rebut.

Kilgore points out that this yearning for a messenger usually turns into a paean for Bill Clinton and, he notes accurately, "this particular variety of Clinton nostalgia is most common not among New Democrat types who view him as an important figure in the modernization of progressive politics, but among those who actually have serious misgivings about Clinton's distinctive approach to public policy." He argues that Clinton's appeal was not just in his rhetoric or his way of crafting a "narrative," but rather, "the content of his message, which was consistently unorthodox, provocative and comprehensive--all qualities lacking, in general, from the messages advanced by our last two presidential candidates, and by most Democratic candidates for Congress during recent cycles."

That's true, but I don't think content and character are so easily separated. During the summer, commenting on the Kerry campaign, I wrote that the campaign didn't seem to have a good sense that the positions it took on issues had to be not just the right positions, or the positions that polled well, but those that best showed the candidate's own strengths or told a story about the candidate's character. After all, we elect a president not just because of his position on issues we know about, but to make choices that we cannot foresee. I think the election results vindicated my argument, in that Kerry may have had positions on Iraq and terrorism, as well as health care, that were both correct and popular, but he wasn't able to structure his positions or his priorities in a way that made people feel he had the personal commitment to the fight.

Clinton, on the other hand, not only had a very substantive message, he understood exactly how to use that message to say something about the kind of person/president he was, and to change it as necessary. I think Kilgore supports that point, when he says that Clinton"was able to expand the Democratic voting base because he was willing to defy stereotypes about the party." But "defying stereotypes about the party" was a statement about the kind of person he was, not just his policies. Policies were one of several tools that he used to connect with people. The same policies, and even the same language, would not have the same resonance in a Michael Dukakis simply because Dukakis embodied the stereotypes of the party. Those stereotypes were not a particular set of policies so much as an attitude: technocratic, aloof, knows-what's-good-for-you, secular, overeducated.

Kilgore says "right now we ought to focus on what our party stands for and what we would do in power--on our message--on what we can say to persuadable voters, with or without a charismatic leader or a nifty 'narrative'--and then worry about how to add the sizzle to the steak." That's hard to disagree with, especially for those of us who might be able to help craft the message but are certainly not going to be the messenger ourselves, or recruit or finance the messenger. But a messenger does more than adopt a set of ideas already adopted by the party. Clinton certainly did. He came into national politics at a time when a lot of ideas were floating around, and uniquely, he absorbed all of them and then crafted from them a substantive message that worked for him. (And then another one, and then another one.)

And his ability to do that also brought about a flowering of ideas about public life that we had not seen in decades. I've written about this earlier: "We were reviving ideas at a mad pace. Communitarians, the 'politics of meaning' groupies, those interested in 'civil society,' the Clintonites who wanted to incubate 'bottom up' community-development strategies, and the thinkers around the Democratic Leadership Council were among many factions engaged in a deep, ongoing, and not at all destructive debate that was thoroughly rooted in history."

Since then, the fields have been mostly fallow, and liberals have fallen back to either envious emulation of the institutional structures of the right, or ideas like the Patients' Bill of Rights that are actually leftovers from the previous decade. I believe that flowering of political ideas had something to do with Clinton, and the fact that he was a sponge for them. Much as The Prince was written for Lorenzo II De Medici, many of these ideas were contrived with an audience of one in mind. Clinton would "get it," they knew. And of course, the fact that he "got it" was exactly what led to the frustration that so many of the idea-advocates had with him. He loved the ideas, he made them feel brilliant and relevant, and then he took their ideas and stirred them deep into the soup. Kilgore would have to admit that the DLC had this experience, as did liberals, but it's all water under the bridge now, which is why even the liberals who had the most "serious misgivings" about his policy directions have to appreciate how much he absorbed. (Benjamin Barber's 2001 book, The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House quite candidly captures this cycle of elation, ego, and frustration.

So, no, it's not just a matter of finding a better messenger. But ideas don't exist in a vacuum, "the party" doesn't stand for anything except as individual political leaders express those things. I don't long for Clinton's bitten lip and churchgoing tone as much as for his extraordinary ability to synthesize great ideas into politically successful ones.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 8, 2005 | Permalink


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» Message v Messenger from GregsOpinion.com
I swear, I was all set and prepared to make some keen observation on Ed Kilgore's latest post about Messages vs Messengers, but damned if Mark Schmitt didn't beat me to it. So I'll just piggyback on his take. Lesson... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 8, 2005 10:45:26 AM

» The Clintonian Flowering Of Ideas? from Kalblog
Here's some interesting revisionist history from Mark Schmitt: And his ability to do that also brought about a flowering of ideas about public life that we had not seen in decades. I've written about this earlier: "We were reviving ideas... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 9, 2005 4:05:57 PM

» Kill The Messengers (Till We Find a Good One)! from Pandagon
Ed Kilgore writes: [T]here's one nagging issue that I have not discussed directly that bears at least one mention: the argument that our big problem is not the lack of a compelling message, but simply the lack of a... [Read More]

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But Clinton did not, in fact, "expand the Demcratic voting base." He may have expanded the Clinton voting base, but that's not the same thing. Nope, the DLC got its shine from Clinton, rather than the reverse.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 8, 2005 9:24:11 AM

Instead of thinking about this as "message versus messenger," I think the right formulation is "team of messengers versus lonely messenger." Bill Clinton was an excellent messenger - but he was just one guy. Kerry was a poor messenger - but again, he was just one guy. Either one would have been vastly more powerful if they had been backed up by a field network of additional messengers. Now clearly, to do that, you need message consistency - in other words, you need "one message" (emphasizing "one"). But again, it's not about message versus messenger. It's about messenger versus messengers, plural.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 8, 2005 5:36:04 PM

Kilgore is brilliant, and it's too bad too many blogland residents probably dismiss him because of who he's aligned with. Using the word 'embodied' is very suggestive....what matters is having a candidate who *is* his message.

And you don't need conventional "love me" Clinton-like personality. You just need to have authenticity. When people perceive authenticity, they're inclined to attribute beliefs to that person.

It's not that Kerry was a poor messenger - he wasn't. It's that the message (or non message) he chose did not reflect who he was. He did not embody it. How did a somewhat aloof but undeniably thoughtful, committed, and fearless young patriot become a calculating politician? It didn't fit.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jan 8, 2005 8:47:23 PM

Clinton won both his elections and was very popular, but he didn't actually get that high a percentage of the vote. When I think about how charismatic he was, it's astounding that he failed to win over more voters.

Clinton always came across as politically expedient and dishonest, not only to me but to millions like myself, across the entire political spectrum (I'm progressive, but I know my right-wing relatives also felt the same way). Partially this is because Clinton always seemed to smooth and dishonest.

One of the unfortunate results: while Clinton's incredible charisma could lift him to victory, the impression that democrats in general were dishonest/politically expedient that he left has really hurt the party. I think another "Clinton" type candidate would actually hurt the Democratic party overall because we need to get away from a general impression that fills the country that we are dishonest and corrupt.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Jan 9, 2005 11:22:12 AM

This may be splitting hairs, but I think "message vs. messenger" is a false dichotomy. (Okay okay, it's the "wrong frame.")

And while I agree that an "extraordinary ability to synthesize great ideas into politically successful ones" is a great talent for governance, it seems like charisma wins more elections.

The Right got it right: they found in George W. Bush a guy who looks like he embodies their message. The fact that it's a deceptive message, embodied in an irresponsible and immature spokesman, is less important than its consistency. He looks like a "God, guns and (anti) gays" Republican. Clinton did the same with his message.

What we need is a message-AND-messenger combo.

Posted by: bleh | Jan 10, 2005 4:31:35 PM

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