Election Review: The Handlers Confess No Sins

Posted: December 11, 1988

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A presidential election isn't really over until the handlers confess their sins.

In keeping with tradition, those confessions came last weekend at a conference at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. The three-day session was a strange mix of whining about what the political process has become, skepticism about whether it can be changed and cynicism about the public's alleged desire to have candidates address real issues.

As a group, the managers of the 1988 campaign did not seem particularly ashamed of their work - even though their product, the campaign itself, has been panned by voters and nonvoters, pundits and professors. On the other hand, they did not seem particularly proud either.

When confronted with the wasteland that was this campaign, they blamed the public. They blamed the news media. And they blamed the candidates. They

rarely blamed one another.

At one point, someone made the startling observation that campaign managers are public servants, because, under federal election law, they are paid in part out of the federal treasury. So perhaps a manager of a presidential campaign has some obligation to see to it that a presidential campaign sounds like a presidential campaign - not a race for sheriff or an insult contest.

Balderdash, replied a prominent Republican. The first rule of politics, and the first rule of governing, is to win the election.

Precisely who said what to whom last weekend cannot be reported here. Journalists were allowed to participate on the understanding that the proceedings were off the record until Harvard publishes the transcript. Regardless, what was not said was every bit as striking as what was.

Consider the way the conference began. One after the other, 14 campaign handlers, one for each of the major Republicans and Democrats who sought the presidency, laid out how their man might have won.

They talked about money. They talked about the importance of the political calendar - the sequence of primaries and caucuses - in determining a candidate's chances of getting nominated.

But they barely mentioned ideas. This was no accident. In fact, when pressed, they argued that ideas are almost invariably hazardous to a candidate's health, especially in the general election. A candidate is better off if he runs on a biography rather than a platform, one said; in this day and age, it is easier to defend who you are than what you think.

The general tone of the conference was set by Roger Ailes, the rotund, hard-boiled media maven whose 30-second attacks on Michael S. Dukakis, delivered on behalf of George Bush, set the negative tone of the fall campaign.

Ailes, who is caricatured by Democrats as a Republican "Great Satan," is known for the cold, blunt cynicism with which he approaches campaigns. At Harvard, he did not temper his views for academic consumption. Winning means never having to say you're sorry.

In the world according to Ailes, the candidate who talks seriously about issues is committing electoral suicide; real issues don't sell in the television-dominated marketplace of American politics. What sells are pictures, attacks and mistakes. And the manager's job is nothing more than to provide what the market demands.

All of which is why he sees campaigns through the prism of his "orchestra pit" theory. Imagine two candidates standing on a stage, he says. One announces a plan for peace in the Mideast. The other falls into the orchestra pit. Which one ends up leading the evening news?

As a group, the handlers are skeptical about how much can be done to improve the nature of presidential campaigns. Some express faith that the same ''invisible hand" that pushes unwanted products off store shelves will purge the political marketplace of its most flagrant abuses.

And they talk, without much enthusiasm, of the possibility of new legal restrictions on the use of 30-second spots or requirements that the candidates hold true debates. Those rules, they say, might pass constitutional muster if Congress tied them to federal funding.

The handlers say they wish the game were different. But they say their job is to play the game, not to change it, and given the stakes, they see no dishonor in that.

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