For Ronald Reagan these must be times of quiet amazement. Rarely in American history has a President’s rhetoric and symbolism so overpowered his record and promises. In nearly four years this “controlled access” President has befuddled and frustrated the media and kept off balance a Democratic Party that seems unable to find its identity.
Citizens have been treated to an unsurpassed diet of one-way, predominately electronic campaigning taken right from Madison Avenue. Thirty second and one minute television spots, according to John O’Toole, chairman of the large Foote, Cone and Belding advertising agency, “encourage the shallowest kind of imagery, the shoddiest kind of logic and the most reprehensible mudslinging.”
Selling candidates like toothpaste does not nourish in the public any expectation for a civically active campaign at the community level. Instead, the expectation is to watch a poll-dominated, who’s ahead-for-the-White House game. Mr. Reagan’s no questions asked, cocoon campaign used local citizens as photo opportunities or props for the television networks’ evening news, featuring his factually deprived one-liners. Images, quips, symbols and gloss were designed to dim the public’s demand for facts, records, evidence and dialogue.
The consequences of this superficial, top down, one-way campaigning, so accelerated by the Reaganites, are serious. First, because they can enter living rooms on the tube, the national parties are abandoning local organizing, which permits some questioning and human feedback. The largest allocation of Reagan’s and Mondale’s budgets were for television buys. Both ignored repeated invitations to go on free national television shows because there was a risk of uncontrollable, two-way discussion.
Second, the reality of Hr. Reagan’s record never came through the camouflage of his rhetoric. In 1980, he promised to balance the budget, reduce unemployment, foster sink-or-swim free enterprise, promote free trade, cut waste, fraud and abuse, preserve the environment, secure the social safety net, get the government off peoples’ back, safeguard our civil liberties rights, respect states’ regulatory rights and protect minorities from injustice… As hundreds of accurate press reports attest, his record in each of these areas was more to the contrary.
As the biggest spender in our history, Ronald Reagan has a four year deficit that is $130 billion larger than the combined deficits of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter, according to Congressional Budget Office data. Yet this time-bomb economic policy, along with its corporate bailouts and tolerance of-government contractors’ waste and fraud, is casting an even greater shadow over the nation’s future. By escaping accountability for these actions, Mr. Reagan has institutionalized his no-fault Presidency.
Third, a Madison Avenue media campaign, without questions, can rewrite history quickly. Compare what Reagan repeatedly called “the failed Carter Presidency” with his term. Average unemployment under Carter was over two points lower than under Reagan. The economy in Carter’s last year, reeling under the doubling of world oil prices, had an unemployment rate slightly lower than is the case this year under Reagan. Under Carter, the economy produced over 11 million new jobs; under Reagan the comparative figure may reach seven million new jobs by the end of his term. Thirteen percent of the population fell under the poverty classification when Carter left office; 15.2 percent is the figure now under Reagan. As for inflation, a world oil glut and the deepest recession since the Great Depression have slowed price increases. Would or could the President take credit for those developments?
Fourth, a majority of voters disagree with President Reagan on dozens of important issues from fairness to health and education to Central America. Yet a sizable majority of voters preferred him for President. This separation of the President’s personality from the record of his government is another objective of one-way campaigning offering “the shallowest kind of imagery”.
Finally, what lessons will politicians draw in the future when they contemplate whether to run a campaign that tries to have people think about the record instead of respond to the brand name? Would it be surprising if even serious-minded candidates jettisoned literate campaigns around issues of political substance to become smiling, flattering hucksters on the hustings?
Millions of people who voted for Reagan on an image or a feeling may soon learn that it would have been far more painless to spend the time getting to know Reagan’s policies before November 6th than to feel their effects over the next decade. Indeed, possibly the only effective antidote to one-way campaign technologies is for disappointed citizens to spend more time being citizens, individually and together.