According to my son’s high school government textbook, five factors influence how people vote: personal background, loyalty to a political party, issues, image of the candidates, and—you’ll never guess. “Propaganda,” the book says, employing a term usually associated with totalitarian systems. It’s a sad day when textbook authors are more cynical than politicians. Yet, by whatever name you call it—practitioners prefer “message”; pundits like “spin”—there is no denying its importance. The ability to define what’s at stake is the essential art of modern politics. Look at the list in the textbook: Each of the other four influences on voters lies in some stage of dormancy until brought to life by messages.
In recent weeks two message masters have made the headlines. One was Karen Hughes, the longtime confidant and adviser of George W. Bush, who announced that she will leave her White House job as counselor to the president and return, for the time being, to Texas and private life. The second was David Beckwith, a veteran Republican operative who is currently working for Attorney General John Cornyn’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. In a reference to the Democratic slate, which is headed by an African American, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who is Cornyn’s opponent, and a Hispanic, gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez, a Laredo banker and oilman, Beckwith said, “This ‘dream ticket’ is cynical. It is based on a racial-quota system. In the end, it will not work because most people vote on issues and philosophy, not on race.” Cornyn, choosing a word forevermore tainted with irony by Claude Rains in Casablanca, pronounced himself “shocked” by Beckwith’s comment. Both incidents are highly revealing, in different ways, of the state of political communication today.
At 45, Hughes has been described as the most powerful woman (presidential spouses excepted) in the history of American politics, so it was inevitable that skepticism greeted her stated reason for leaving: family. She and her husband, Jerry, have a fifteen-year-old son, and all of them, she said, were “a little homesick” for Texas. Hughes’s concerns, however, are nothing new; they go back at least three years, to early 1999, before Bush was an announced candidate for president. She told me in an interview that year about how Bush had said to her, “If you have any doubts about this, we need to talk about it right now, because I’m not doing this unless you’re coming with me.” And she did have doubts—about getting involved in a national campaign, about how to maintain one’s personal life in the face of the seductions of power. “We talked about how all this fit in with my family and my faith,” she told me. “Washington’s values are not my values. Everyone you meet is always looking over your shoulder for somebody more important.” She said yes to Bush, as we know, but it was never an unconditional yes—and now it’s no. She will return to Texas, keep in touch with the president by phone and visits to Crawford, and return for the final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign.
As genuine as the family reasons were, I wonder if there were also work-related reasons. In the Bush inner circle, Hughes has always been responsible for message, and senior adviser Karl Rove has always been responsible for politics. In Austin, where the media spotlight falls on the governor’s office sporadically, message was more important than politics. Hughes was able to craft a consistent message for Bush—a uniter, not a divider; someone who was above politics and partisanship—that defined him as governor and helped him win the presidency. Except for a time after September 11, however, the message has not transplanted to the White House. The intense scrutiny of the media, the insatiable hunger for headlines and conflict, and the magnification of small events into large ones keep the spotlight shining 24-7. There is nothing like it in the world. The opposition’s barrage of criticism is relentless. Polling is constant. In such an atmosphere, politics becomes more important than message; indeed, politics is message.
A case in point: drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( ANWR). Let’s say that a good case can be made that drilling can be carried out, at certain times of the year and with modern technology, with minimal risk to the environment. (No letters, please.) It’s still a hard sell. The national security argument—energy independence—is patently false; ANWR’s reserves are a drop in the barrel. The public doesn’t want the drilling to go forward, and the opposition includes a lot of suburban quality-of-life Republicans. Plus, the ANWR plan is awful as a message. The public hates Big Oil; why give the Democrats an excuse to remind everybody that Bush used to be an oilman or that he was buddies with Enron? So, what’s the upside of fighting to open ANWR? According to a member of the national press corps, whom I saw in Houston recently, it’s all about sending a signal to coal miners in Pennsylvania that Bush won’t let the environmentalists dictate America’s energy policy. Rove, the newsman said, is obsessed with carrying Pennsylvania, where Bush narrowly lost in 2000.
Another example is making the tax cut permanent. The budget deficit is expected to pass $100 billion, spending increases are approaching the Great Society levels of the sixties, the economy is uncertain, and the market is nervous. Why force this issue now? The only reason I can think of is to be able to blame Democrats for killing it, perhaps enabling Republicans to win back the Senate. The result is that the Bush message has become mixed: sometimes above politics, sometimes embracing questionable public policy for purely political ends. This is not Karen Hughes’ style.
So I think that Hughes saw message becoming of diminishing significance in the Bush White House. In part this is because circumstances made Bush a foreign policy president, and in foreign policy, consistency of message is not necessarily a virtue. Bush was at his best and most popular during