Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Campaign Messages

James Skillen


January 18, 1999

On the same day last week I read both of these heralds of the 2000 presidential campaign:

"It's hard to run a campaign without a message. Yet, at least for now, Al Gore is basically doing just that" (The New Republic, Jan. 25).

"Candidates' messages still count for something in this hunt and like the others checking over the field, [Elizabeth] Dole has yet to share hers" (The Washington Post, Jan. 10).

Of course, it is not quite that vacuous. Dana Milbank's article on Gore concludes that "at least in substance, the message of Gore 2000 will be Clinton II. . . . He is, for better or worse, establishing himself as the incumbent." Al Gore cannot help but drip with messages. And if Elizabeth Dole chooses to enter the race, she will not begin her campaign with an empty slate. She is, after all, a well-known public woman with much experience in government as a Cabinet officer and in political campaigning. In neither case will the average voter have to ask, "Al or Elizabeth who?"

Nevertheless, the "no-message" comments about these two potential nominees communicate a great deal about current American politics. Candidates put off their "messages" because they serve only as a kind of theme song or window dressing. Nothing more substantial or enduring is needed or expected.

Gore is putting off the release of his message for several reasons. First, he needs to wait to consider the opinion polls at the time the race formally begins around Labor Day. Depending on public reactions to the condition of the economy and to what happens to Bill Clinton, Gore will then devise a message for the primaries. Right now, he is concentrating on lining up IOUs and endorsements. Before other Democratic candidates get going, Gore wants to pin down as many Democratic politicians as possible. This he is doing not by leading with a message, but by showing he has the most money and clout to win.

Gore is also busy lining up interest groups. In this regard, we can begin to write his message for him simply by paying attention to what he has already promised to the environmentalists, the teachers unions, the gays and lesbians, and dozens of others.

Elizabeth Dole, by contrast, has more freedom than Gore. She has never held elective office. She is not attached to one wing of the Republican Party. She has worked in Democratic as well as Republican administrations. If Gore is the insiders' insider, Dole comes from far enough outside recent Republican history to appear fresh while still being recognized as a potential Republican leader.

Perhaps it is too early to expect that Dole's exploration of a possible candidacy would produce a guiding message for her campaign. Her strength at this point is her personality and character. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that in our political system a gifted person with a strong personality can look like a presidential candidate despite the fact that she has never held elected office and has not yet declared her message.

This is American politics: pragmatic, interest-group driven, poll-responsive, machine before message, personality over substance, candidates winning parties rather than parties advancing candidates.

Given this state of affairs, is it too much to hope that a leader might arise whose message would be to elevate principle over pragmatism, the long-term over the short term, party-building over individualism, and good government in the public interest over special-interest brokering?

Would such a person even have a chance of being nominated by either party?

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”