I was in a meeting with a nationally respected consultant to political campaigns this morning. We were talking about how the web had changed campaigns. His answer: Substance is becoming king.
“Take endorsements,” he said. “When TV drove campaigns, all you would see about newspaper editorials in campaign advertising was the banner, ‘L.A. Times or O.C. Register endorses.’ Now with the web a smart campaign takes every substantive sentence and dwells on it. The facts and detail appear in any number of posts and ads. They get DISCUSSED.”
With the web, he said, campaigns must build deep cases around their positions, marshaling facts and arguments to a degree that campaign advisors have disdained for more than a decade.
My feeling is that GOP consultants and many of our officeholders have become lazy about detail, Democrats much less so. In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, our people were regularly better prepared for debates than the Democrats. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp set the standard, and it was a high one. No more.
The 2012 campaign gave us a particularly dispiriting example of detail-free debating. Think of the pledge, “I will create 12 million new jobs.” Oh? And how ? The campaign never offered an answer or even indicated they believed one was needed. I felt I was listening to Glendower, the Welsh blowhard king in Henry IV, part 1, as he proclaimed “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” I could all but hear Hotspur’s reply, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you call them?”
I am not the only one to see this and worry. Here is a post that Princeton’s Robert George recently put up on Facebook, making the same point but about Congressional hearings:
“I have on several occasions testified before congressional committees. The pattern I noticed was disturbing. Complaining about it to friends who have been witnesses, I found that my experience was depressingly common.
“Democratic members of Congress, to their credit, show up for the hearing; they have been fully briefed by staff and are prepared for the exchanges with witnesses; they aggressively go after those witnesses whose views they don’t like, and equally aggressively protect (including with effective “rehabilitation questions”) those whose views they like.
“Republicans by contrast, tend not to show up….. [O]nly the chairman or ranking member seems to have been prepared by staff for the hearing; other members who show up or walk into the hearing room in the middle of the hearing (not having heard what has gone on before they entered) seem not to have been briefed at all; the Republicans (except for the chairman or ranking member) tend to be largely ineffective in questioning witnesses put on by the Democrats, and they do little to protect their own witnesses when the Democratic members go after them…..
“Democrats seem to know how to conduct hearings and use them effectively in pursuing their political goals. This is definitely an area in which Republicans have something to learn from Democrats.”
We hear a lot about how the GOP needs to catch up with the techniques of the web. The party also needs to catch up with the web’s appetite for substance. Skating by on slogan works no more. It should never have become our side’s style, we who have the substance on our side. Thanks to the web, the new media and, yes, sites like Ricochet, it cannot be that way any longer.