Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Death Of Courtship

Used to be that politicians were always on the lookout for a crowd, any opportunity to meet and greet potential voters. And time was when those same politicians were constantly tugging at the shirtsleeves of the news reporters, pining for a chance to share a story or a pithy quip that might make it into the papers.

Now most all of them are surrounded by handlers who advise them to severely limit public appearances and debates and steadfastly refuse media interviews. If, god forbid, they are left with no choice but to open their mouths during an unscripted moment, they are schooled in the art of staying "on message," which in practical terms means they are drained of any and all spontaneity and originality and turned into freaking automatons.

Used to be that in Wisconsin we elected Bill Proxmire to represent us in the U.S. Senate. He famously ran his statewide campaigns for a couple hundred bucks. And seemingly everyone in the state had their own story of an encounter with Prox. Maybe it was at a Lambeau Field tailgate or out in front of Camp Randall. Or they ran into him while eating something-on-a-stick at the State Fair, or you-know-what at Cheese Days in Monroe. It could have been at a plant gate at the GM factory in Janesville, or standing in line to get a kringle at O&H bakery in Racine. When you weren't running into Prox in a restaurant or outside a tavern somewhere, you were reading about him and his Golden Fleece awards in the papers. He had no handlers, at least none who could keep up with him on the trail, and certainly no one was telling him to avoid media interviews.

Now the pollsters tell us there's a good chance we'll send Ron Johnson to Washington to represent us in the Senate. Has anyone ever actually met Johnson? Can someone out there confirm for certain that he's not merely a green-screen image that will be digitally superimposed on the Senate floor during debates?

State secrets have nothing on Johnson's campaign schedule. He almost never agrees to talk to reporters. Hell, the executive editor of Johnson's hometown newspaper serves with him on the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, and couldn't get an interview.

Johnson is running a thoroughly modern campaign. One TV ad after another after another. All style, no substance, much nonsense. Everyone knows government doesn't produce jobs . . . I know how to create jobs so send me to Washington and put me in your government and I'll make the economy hum. In a span of a little over four weeks, over 18,000 TV ads aired in the U.S. Senate race at a cost of more than $7 million. Close to $4 million of that came from Johnson himself, with another $625,000 coming from interest groups supporting him.

Used to be if you wanted to get married, you had to meet the family before popping the question. You had to break bread. And you had to have "the talk" with your future father in law. In politics, there was something akin to that courtship.

Now if you want to represent us in the halls of Congress or at the State Capitol you don't have to meet us or get to know what makes us tick or answer our questions. You don't have to have the talk. You just have to beam your green-screen image into our living rooms over and over and over again.


Anonymous said...

Johnson is part of a nationwide phenomenon, and the strategy is especially common among tea party candidates. Politico just compiled a list of candidates who have gone AWOL or are otherwise dodging unwanted exposure to the press and the public.

High on Politico's list of campaign hermits are Republicans like Colorado's Ken Buck, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, Kentucky's Rand Paul, Nevada's Sharron Angle, South Carolina's Nikki Haley and California's Meg Whitman. Ron Johnson is lumped in with these others. Politico also pointed to two Democrats — Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Harry Reid of Nevada — who are particularly press-shy and avoid the public.

Rick said...

You have singled out Ron Johnson in your comments, but it goes for candidates from both parties. Ron Johnson made a personal appearance at the Wisconsin Towns Association convention in La Crosse at the General Assembly on Monday, October 4, 2010. Mayor Tom Barrett made a personal appearance on Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at the same conference. This conference was attended by about 550 town and village officers each day. However, although invited neither Co. Executive Scott Walker nor U.S. Senator Russ Feingold attended the conference. Your criticism is legitimate but it goes to key candidates of both parties as to the types of appearances they will make.

Mike McCabe said...

I agree, Rick.

Anonymous said...


Shame on you. Sen. Feingold is one of the most accessible legislators you can find. Remember, he visits every county every year. Heck, he's been in our area lots of times. In fact, he'll be here next week. If he didn't make the General Assembly, there must have been a scheduling conflict. Sen. Feingold is not afraid to answer questions because he knows what he's talking about, he reads the legislation and he reads and answers mail from constituents. I wrote Robert Reich the other day (yes, the Robert Reich) and he answered back. I had asked him what I could say to support Sen. Feingold. He wrote:
"Russ Feingold has been one of the best senators we've ever had in the Senate. I respect and admire him enormously. It would be a terrible tragedy if he were defeated. The good people of your state surely are sensible enough to understand that."

You may be able to lump other politicians into the no show list but I'll defend Sen. Feingold.

Mike McCabe said...

I didn't single out Feingold in my post for a reason. I'm very aware he holds listening sessions in every county, and is a highly visible campaigner. But I agree with Rick that there are many politicians from both parties who fit the description of peek-a-boo politicians. An appearance at one group's convention notwithstanding, the way Ron Johnson has run his campaign for U.S. Senate makes him the most striking current example in Wisconsin, which is why my post did single him out.