Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Of Campaigns and Big Ideas

Here’s a thought for political campaigns in 2008.

At the end of The Argument [Penguin Press, 2007], Matt Bai summarizes a speech made by Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, concerning successful election campaigns. Governor Cuomo reportedly observed that campaign issues are “too myriad and complex for voters to sort through and weigh.” The answer “was not that you build the best voter turnout machine you can afford, or that you bring in a linguist to calibrate your message,” but rather that “You seize the biggest idea that you can, the biggest idea that you can understand,” because “this is what moves elections.” Examples of big campaign ideas given by Governor Cuomo reportedly included “Holiness and Cleanliness in Government” [Carter], “Supply-side Economics” [Reagan], “Cold War Showdown” [Reagan], “The Upheaval in the Economy” [Clinton], and “War on Terror” [Bush II].

Then, says Matt, Governor Cuomo asked what Democrats would offer as the “big idea” for the 2008 election. Governor Cuomo believed that “Iraq” was the “big idea” in 2006, but he didn’t believe it would stick around, and he called issues like minimum wage and prescription drug prices “very timid proposals”. Apparently he came closest to proposing “big ideas” when he lamented that Democrats had not cared to use “healthcare” or “the economy” as their “big idea” in 2004.

I don’t believe that big ideas about “healthcare” or “the economy” would have won the Presidency for John Kerry in 2004, but I think that Governor Cuomo’s observation about the campaign value of a “big idea” is sound. Considering the 2000 Presidential election, I was frankly shocked to hear friends state that they were voting for Bush because Gore was part of the “immoral” Clinton administration. I mean, Gore wasn’t unfaithful to his wife. Gore didn’t get a bj in the Oval Office and lie about it. But what was the “big idea” repeated by the Bush 2000 campaign in stump speeches? That George W. Bush would restore “Honor and Dignity” to the White House.

That leads me to a corollary observation: the Big Idea of a campaign has to respond to The Big Problem currently on the minds of the voters. What will be the Big Problem on the minds of voters in October 2008? It could be “The Economy”, as we slide into a recession. It could be “Healthcare”, as substantially more Americans can’t afford it. But I think what voters see as the Big Problem is “The Incompetence” of the faith-based Bush administration. So here’s my “Big Idea” suggestion for Democratic campaigns in 2008: “Competent, Real-World Management”.

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