Politics Lost traces the disappearance of Turnip Day moments in todays political mise en scène. This disappearance Klein attributes to the development of the pollster-consultant industrial complex, a rise to power of consultants and their methods that have sanctified a scientific sterility in politics, a fear to tread beyond the market-tested that has left the American people with little to choose from but the most inane and inoffensive specimens.
Political stage management is nothing new: President Coolidge invited Vaudevillians to breakfast in an attempt to boost his dour image; the Times reported Actors Eat Cake With the Coolidges President Almost Laughs. Klein, however, plants the genesis of the current incarnation in the early 70s, when Pat Cadell, pollster wunderkind and volatile savant, outlined for President Carter a Permanent Campaign strategy deemed necessary in the television age. Cadells foresight was prescient enough; unfortunately, his tactics, proscribing a national lassitude and itchiness in the famous and famously mis-nomered malaise speech, sent Carter into the dark woods of abstraction when a troubled populace, facing gas lines and inflation, needed real solutions. After Cadell, the situation only escalates, through the let-Reagan-be-Reagan successes of the 80s to the many failures of Bob Shrum, who manages to lose seven separate presidential elections through a consistent and calculated middling.
Klein is a veteran reporter of eight presidential elections and an expert in the theatre of politics. His special province is the campaign stage, which is where his gaze is set in Politics Lost. The book moves on tales of erratic political consultants and their static candidates, or erratic candidates and their static campaign staffers, or in the case of John Kerrys 2004 presidential bid, a statically erratic candidate and an erratic rotation of static consultants. There are occasional reports of success Lee Atwater propelling Bush Senior, James Carville and Bill Clinton, and of course, Karl Rove and Bush Junior but on the whole, consultants seem to collect checks by stymieing candor and foiling instincts.
Through it all, Klein never ventures to investigate why the American public is so vulnerable to the Carnival Barkers and Snake Oil Salesmen of the campaign trail. As a result, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the consultants and their clients. No other group not a media increasingly intolerant of nuance, not a campaign finance structure that focuses power in moneyed special interests, not a public that has demanded so little of its leaders comes in for indictment.
Indeed, there is more to the issue than Pat Cadell and Pandoras Memo, or Bob Shrum and his Milquetoast message, and it would have been good of Klein to dedicate some ink to a broader explanation. Which makes Politics Lost more of a history of political campaigns in the last half-century rather than a dissection of the post-modern political mind. Klein makes note of important rhetorical and marketing trends, but forgoes the deeper analysis. He is vocal and entertaining on the How of the political evolution, but is unfortunately silent on the Why.
As the 2006 and 2008 elections lumber into sight, Politics Lost is bound to prove timely. The consistent blundering of the Bush administration, painfully articulated by Klein as a warning against governing by Permanent Campaign, has soured voters ever further on platitudes and parables. Candidates are now banking on claims of independence from the strictures of parties and establishments, raising cries heralding the end of politics. One can only assume that their phrases have been dial-tested and focus-grouped and phone-banked to prove by science that the at least 50% of likely voters will respond favorably. How could anyone argue with such a mandate? We can now look forward to a season of calculated spontaneity, wooden enthusiasm, and pageants of independent-minded pandering. Maybe this year, everyday can be Turnip Day.