On Dec. 10, 1976, a young pollster named Patrick H. Caddell submitted to President-elect Jimmy Carter a 62-page memo titled "Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy." The subject was how to govern.
"The old cliche about mistaking style for substance usually works the reverse in politics," Caddell wrote. "Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening." Caddell then made some famous suggestions about ways Carter could sell his substance: by conducting a humble, informal presidency, cutting back "imperial frills and perks," giving fireside chats, wearing sweaters instead of suits.
"Essentially," Caddell wrote, "it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign." ("Excellent," Carter wrote in felt pen on the cover page, and instructed his Vice President, Walter Mondale, "See me on this. J.")
Thus Caddell gave a namethe Permanent Campaignto a political mind-set that had been developing since the beginning of the television age. It has proved a radical change in the nature of the presidency. Every President since Lyndon Johnson has run his Administration from a political consultant's eye view. Untold millions have been spent on polling and focus groups. Dick Morris even asked voters where Bill Clinton should go on vacation. The pressure to "win" the daily news cycleto control the newshas overwhelmed the more reflective, statesmanlike aspects of the office.
An overcaffeinated and underdiscerning press has become complicit in the horse-race presidency. New policies are analyzed politically rather than for what they are intended to achieve. Success is measured in days and weeksin polling blipsrather than months or years. This has been a terrible thing: Presidents need to be thinking past the horizon, as Jimmy Carter belatedly proved. Some of his best decisionsa strict monetary policy to combat inflation, a vigorous arms buildup against the Soviet threatbore fruit years after he left office and were credited to his successor, Ronald Reagan. But then, Carter was among the worst recent Presidents as a Permanent Campaigner.
George W. Bush may be the very best. Indeed, his Administration represents the final, squalid perfection of the Permanent Campaign: a White House where almost every move is tactical, a matter of momentary politics, even decisions that involve life and death and war. That is what the Scooter Libby indictment is really all about.
It is about trying to spin a war.
Bush's White House is a conundrum, a bastion of telegenic idealism and deep cynicism. The President has proposed vast, transformational policiesthe remaking of the Middle East, of Social Security, of the federal bureaucracy. But he has done so in a haphazard way, with little attention to detail or consequences. There are grand pronouncements and, yes, crusades, punctuated with marching words like evil and moral and freedom. Beneath, though, is the cynical assumption that the public doesn't care about the detailsthat results don't matter, corners can be cut and special favors bestowed.
Bush opposed a Department of Homeland Security, then supported it as a campaign ployand then allowed it to be slapped together carelessly, diminishing the effectiveness of the agencies involved.
The White House proposed a massive Medicare prescription-drug plan and then flat-out misrepresented the true costs (and quietly included a windfall for drug companies). Every bit of congressional vanity spending, every last tax cut, was approved. Reagan proved that "deficits don't matter," insisted Vice President Dick Cheney.