In the Diaspora: Retail politics

Sometimes, voters see past the advertising to someone with something genuine to offer.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit:)
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
"Never pay retail," holds one of the pillars of American Jewish humor and maybe philosophy, too. Full price is for fools and gentiles, we believe. And we keep on believing even as we unwittingly reinforce the stereotype of the cheap Jew. That may be the topic for another day. The topic for this one is the truism that has turned out not to be true, at least politically speaking. As I write, an overcast dawn in Manhattan is greeting the day known for its 24 presidential primaries as Super Tuesday, then Super-Duper Tuesday, then Tsunami Tuesday. For our ethnocentric purposes, perhaps we ought to dub it, as Israel's Reshet Bet radio network did, Yom Shlishi Hagadol. By any name, Super Tuesday epitomizes the salience of what campaign professionals call "retail politics" - the kind of relational, interpersonal politics that even in a vast nation means connecting a candidate to voter after voter after voter. Retail politics is the antithesis to what we might term wholesale politics, the strategy of simultaneously reaching massive numbers of voters with television commercials, direct-mail pitches, computerized phone calls. The chic, safe stance for any journalist, scholar or intellectual to adopt about American politics is one of cynicism - it doesn't matter, it's a rigged game, it's all about big money and big media. The same theme has run through modern-day protest candidacies from George Wallace's in 1968 to Ross Perot's in 1992, all of them ringing variations on Wallace's riff that there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans. When that complaint couldn't possibly stick, during the intensely partisan combat of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years, then the trendy lament was that there was too much difference, too little compromise. IN THE hands of candidates themselves, this jaundiced view of politics came down to buying your way into office by spending your opponents into defeat. "I have the most reliable friend you can have in American politics," former senator Phil Gramm famously put it, "and that's ready money." It's worth remembering, however, that the $20 million Gramm lavished on his 1996 race for the Republican presidential nomination brought him the whopping total of eight delegates. Such a record made him the worthy successor to a fellow Texan, John Connally, who used $12 million to capture a single delegate in 1980. Today's model would be, of course, Mitt Romney, the empty suit of the Republican campaign. For all the wealth the former Massachusetts governor has accumulated in business, for his vast advantage in fund-raising, he was first defeated by the upstart Mike Huckabee in Iowa and now is being steamrolled by John McCain, who only months ago was running out of money. The imperfect parallel on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton, no longer a front-runner despite all the financial advantages of being seen by donors as her husband's heir apparent. In spite of all the eye-rolling and irony and post-modern chilliness, in spite of all the knowing dismissiveness about campaign politics, there remains an art and a talent to it. At least sometimes, voters can see past the deluge of advertising to someone with something genuine to offer. When Ronald Reagan spoke to blue-collar crowds in 1980 about his early years as a New Dealer, a union man, and about how he didn't leave the Democratic Party as much as the party left him, people recognized the narrative as their own. When George W. Bush invokes the language and belief system of evangelical Christianity, people from that world can sense the sincerity, the shared experience. I OFFER this admiration as a liberal, because liberals have ignored such phenomena at their peril. Republicans, for their part, wasted so much energy detesting Bill Clinton that they never fathomed his instinct, his reflex, for empathizing with the proverbial little guy. In the present campaign, what has brought John McCain back from the dead and Barack Obama back from the periphery is that ineffable ability to embody traits that voters crave - persistence, heroism, candor, hope, vigor among them. Both communicate something real, something beyond talking points crafted in focus groups. The accident of the American political calendar helped, as well, by starting the national campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire - smallish states in population and geography, places made for the old-style retail politics of town-hall meetings and rallies in high-school gyms. The overflow crowds that Obama in particular is now attracting to basketball arenas are the logical extension of those almost quaint events. For both Obama and McCain, money has come as the response to their rise; for neither was money the cause of it. Wholesale politics may actually cost more money than the retail variety, as losers like Gramm and Connally discovered. But in terms of the real expense, the expense of a candidate's own time and heart and energy, the time of all those volunteers who knock on doors and work phone banks and drive voters to the polls on primary day, wholesale politics is politics on the cheap.