Saturday, March 1, 2008

The secret of losing elections

I've been reading "The Political Brain," Drew Westen's playbook for Democrats who actually want to win elections. Westen is a clinical, personality, and political psychologist who teaches at Emory University. His main thesis, in a nutshell, is that you don't win elections by appealing to reason. "The political brain," he writes, "is an emotional brain." Democrats, according to Westen, have "an irrational emotional commitment to rationality -- one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail."

It's not too likely that Hillary Clinton read "The Political Brain." Maybe she skimmed it one night in a New Hampshire hotel room, but it couldn't have been much more than that. If Hillary's chief strategist Mark Penn checked it out at all, it's certain he tossed it aside without bothering to conceal his contempt.

Mark Penn is a p0llster, and hence has convinced himself that candidates can win elections by telling the public whatever it is his polls tell him the public already believes about policy. Penn worked for Bill Clinton before he worked for Hillary, and somehow managed to take credit for Bill Clinton's political success. Al Gore fired Penn early in the 2000 election season, but sadly didn't hire Westen in his place. Westen could have told Gore that his policy positions made no difference whatsoever, and helped him build his emotional appeal.

But didn't Mark Penn help Bill Clinton? Answer: no. Bill Clinton is a natural politician, with an extraordinary talent for connecting to people on an emotional level -- and that was the secret of his success. Penn actually helped Clinton to be less popular. If you were paying attention at the time, you may remember how the press repeatedly accused Bill Clinton of "government by poll results." It was a valid critique. As a matter of fact, Bill Clinton might have accomplished a lot more had he followed his instincts rather than Penn's poll-based advice.

It seems possible that the conservative press is right when it tells us the Clintons really are liberals -- even though you couldn't tell it from Bill's policy decisions as president or Hillary's voting record in the Senate. Since her chance for the nomination depends on Tuesday's Ohio and Texas primaries, it's probably too late in this election cycle for Hillary to abandon her Penn-induced caution and let it all hang out. Just the same, I think she should give it a try.

It could be good for her soul.

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