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Sunday, November 12th, 2006
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The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008

by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris

Last Woman Standing

A review by Noam Scheiber

There's a bait and switch going on at the beginning of The Way to Win, the recent collaboration between ABC political director Mark Halperin and the Washington Post's John Harris. The authors say they plan to share the lessons of the two sharpest political minds of this generation: Karl Rove and Bill Clinton. Only Rove and Clinton, they argue, have mastered presidential campaigning in the age of the Freak Show, by which they mean the era of hyper-personal, hyper-partisan, scandal-obsessed politics ushered in by New Media.

And, to be fair, The Way to Win dispenses no shortage of lessons -- if anything, the book offers too many of them. But don't be fooled. Much as Halperin and Harris want you to believe it, this is not an innocent how-to kit for Freak-Show-era presidential aspirants. It's an argument for why Hillary Clinton should be the Democrats' nominee in 2008.

Better yet, it's a remarkably fresh argument for why Hillary should be the party's nominee. To date, the most damning knock against Hillary has to do with electability: Democratic partisans love her (naysaying bloggers notwithstanding), but they fret that she carries too much baggage to win a general election. Halperin and Harris disagree. They suggest Hillary would be the Democrats' most formidable candidate precisely because she's the most electable.

It all depends on your definition of "electable," of course. The traditional notion of electability holds that there's something about a candidate's biography or worldview that makes her more or less capable of winning over the swing voters who decide elections. John Kerry qualified as electable under this standard because of his war-hero résumé and his relatively moderate Senate record. Hillary fails the test because of her starring role in the Clinton-era scandals, not to mention the biggest policy fiasco of the 1990s.

But Halperin and Harris believe there's no such a thing as an objectively electable candidate. You're only as electable as you look once you've been chewed up and spat out by the bloggers, cable-TV babblers, and talk-radio jocks who populate the Freak Show. John Kerry learned this midway through his now-notorious swift-boating. Al Gore learned it after he'd been tagged by the media as a serial embellisher (with a huge assist from the Bush campaign). The most electable candidate, it turns out, is simply the candidate best able to tame the Freak Show. It's a depressingly post-modern view of politics. But the history of the last few presidential campaigns indicates there's something to it.

Hillary emerges as such a formidable candidate in this context because she's the only Democrat who's absorbed the Freak-Show-defying lessons of Bill Clinton and Karl Rove. According to Halperin and Harris, it was Bill's success at taming the Freak Show that helped him bounce back from the failure of his first two years in office, when he suffered from the debilitating perception that he was both weak and wrong. The way Clinton reclaimed his image was to project strength and dignity at every turn -- out went the self-deprecating jokes, the casual banter with reporters; in was a more authoritative, more distant, more presidential style. Clinton also convinced voters he shared their values (i.e., that he was right) using small-bore policy initiatives like V-chips and school uniforms. (The authors have much less to say about the 1992 campaign, which they classify as mostly pre-Freak Show.)

No one who follows Hillary's career could miss the traces of these lessons in her senatorial style, from her scrupulously dignified bearing to her vote for an anti-flag-burning amendment. But, of course, Hillary had a front row seat to the failings of the early Clinton years. It's hardly surprising that she would have learned from that experience. More surprising is the ease with which she appears to have assimilated the secrets of Rove's success.

The Way to Win devotes several chapters to the mechanics of Rove's victories. Suffice it to say, they yield much more in the way of lessons than I could possibly list here -- from the utterly banal ("know a lot of people," "be first in adapting new technology") to the counter-intuitive (in this age of hyper-specialization, a first-rate campaign strategist must be a generalist, not a specialist). But there are four Rovian insights that seem critical to any presidential candidate intent on surviving the Freak Show: First, the national press is not your friend; stiff-arm it at every opportunity. Second, always maintain a united front; do not, under any circumstances, air your team's dirty laundry in public. Third, use control of your party and other partisan organizations to define your opponents early on, without leaving fingerprints. Fourth, respond to any attacks on your character swiftly and mercilessly.

Any national reporter who's covered Sen. Clinton knows she's a diligent practitioner of rules one and two. (Stultifyingly diligent, in fact.) Halperin and Harris also catalogue how carefully Team Hillary has hewed to rules three and four. In 2003, for example, one of the consulting firms in Hillary's orbit became a paid adviser to the New York Democratic Party. Thereafter, any time a New York Republican so much as mused about a possible Senate challenge, the state party would bloody them with endless press releases and well-timed leaks of opposition research. As for lesson four, it's safe to say Ed Klein became the poster child for it when he released The Truth About Hillary in June of 2005. The response from Hillary-land was to attack Klein's credibility by seizing on the book's factual errors and its handful of outrageous charges (like Hillary's purported lesbianism). Having undermined the book, they then used Klein to discredit the entire anti-Hillary genre, much like Rove et. al. used a flawed CBS report to suppress subsequent questions about Bush's National Guard service.

It's easy to get the impression that Halperin and Harris think presidential campaigns hinge entirely on tactical decision-making. Midway through the book they write that "[t]he presidential candidate who better keeps control of his public image wins the election." My sense is that they don't actually believe this. I suspect they really mean that tactical competence is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for winning the presidency. Taming the Freak Show may not make you president in the absence of other strengths as a candidate. But if you can't tame the Freak Show, no amount of substantive appeal will save you.

If their view of presidential politics is correct, then Hillary may well be the Democrat to nominate in 2008. But this view has other, ominous implications. In particular, there's the fact that every Rovian innovation for dealing with the Freak Show -- stiff-arming the press, putting a premium on internal unity, de-legitimizing opponents, ruthlessly rebutting attacks -- has the effect of reducing accountability and insulating an administration from dissent. It's not hard to see how operating in such an environment could lead to catastrophic mistakes -- like, say, toppling a regime without a plan for stabilizing the country after the fact. Which suggests that, in the world Halperin and Harris posit, presidential candidates face a terrible Catch-22: They can only get elected (and re-elected) by adopting Rovian tactics. But adopting those tactics will doom their presidencies to failure.

Fortunately, I don't think Halperin and Harris are correct. I don't think John Kerry and Al Gore lost the presidency because they were inept at navigating the Freak Show, though they certainly were inept. Nor do I think Bill Clinton won in 1992 or '96 because he was so skilled at the Freak Show game. The difference between the winners and losers was the ability to articulate a compelling rationale for their candidacy. Kerry and Gore failed to and lost. Bill succeeded and won, despite taking his share of Freak Show hits. If Hillary turns out to be the Democrats' most electable candidate, it will be because she grasps this insight above all others.

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