In his latest article for Slate, Joe Klein contends that populism is a troublesome ideology for presidential aspirants, especially that brand sold by Democratic message-master Bob Shrum. As Klein says:
“The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: The country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats. This rather sour ideology did have one fleeting moment of high-mindedness a hundred years ago.”
This is one of the reasons Klein contends that Shrum’s record with presidential candidates has been “disastrous.” There is, however, a very interesting line later in the article that, I think, tells an even deeper story. Klein analyzes some of the populist campaign messages crafted for several Democrats, including Al Gore and Bob Kerrey. After describing a particular commercial Shrum crafted for Kerrey, Klein writes: “Kerrey later admitted he didn’t believe a word he was saying.” While populism may certainly be a troublesome ideology for a presidential candidate in the twenty-first century, I would suggest this tidbit speaks more eloquently to Kerrey’s failure in 1992.
Actors can deliver convincing lines they do not believe while playing characters they do not resemble ideologically. This is a skill that eludes most of us. Message stability and coherence are crucially important in the era of the 24-7-365 TV campaign. One skill the electorate develops from the personality-driven, horse-race coverage of television is the ability to smell a phony.