In trying to capture the moment, the swirl of issues and people -- the health care debate, the Packwood diaries, Bill and Hillary, NAFTA, Whitman vs. Florio, Dinkins vs. Giuliani -- we're reminded again that politics is a matter of both form and substance. And that we may be entering a period in which substance once again dominates form. It would be a wonderful thing, for it would mean that the political class would show some respect for the electorate of ordinary people instead of believing they can always be fooled by images. Michael Kelly, in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, captured this mood beautifully in "The Game," a cover story ostensibly about the President's chief spin doctor, David Gergen, but it was really about the mystique of illusion and reality in the Beltway -- a place where people are viewed as computer printouts.
The dominance of form over substance probably began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy barely defeated Richard Nixon. His victory was so narrow that it became conventional wisdom that if only Nixon had shaved in that first televised debate, he might have won. Everywhere, candidates with youthful good looks, clean-shaven, with charisma, stepped forward to offer themselves to a dimwitted electorate. When the handsome John Lindsay became the first GOP mayor of New York City since Fiorello La Guardia, form was definitely in for the long haul. The broadcast media has been especially good at conquering substance with form. The voters are assumed to be sheep to be led, especially since they twice awarded landslide White House victories to a broken-down movie actor from California, who was able to use his acting skills, the trickery of Michael Deaver, and the wordsmithing of Peggy Noonan to sucker the voters with supply-side economics. There is no other way for the Establishment to explain Reagan's success! Walter Mondale was clearly the superior candidate on substance. Right? Michael Dukakis should have defeated George Bush, except that Bush hired Peggy Noonan to write his "read my lips speech," once again suckering the yokels. Besides, Dukakis was not telegenic.
Why did Bill Clinton win last year? We all know it was because he was smart enough to hire Jim Carville as his campaign strategist. Carville is the genius who maneuvered Jim Florio into the New Jersey statehouse four years ago by promising the yokels "no new taxes," then raising them in accordance with Establishment formulae. Carville was also the genius who guided Harris Wofford to a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, promising the suckers free medical care. All Richard Thornburgh promised was a warm friendship with George Bush, who had recently broken his "read my lips" promise. On Carville's advice, Governor Clinton promised the suckers both a tax cut and free medical care.
We now notice that reality is catching up with illusion. As the Clintons are currently discovering, the yokels are insisting on looking the free medical horse in the mouth, and finding large cavities. Mrs. Clinton, who had been in perfect form -- calm, poised and gracious -- this past Monday turned shrew, screeching about the "lies" of the insurance industry regarding the substance of her plan. How dare they buy television ads to question it? The outburst was duly noted by the broad electorate.
In New Jersey, reality caught up with illusion, as Christine Todd Whitman narrowly defeated Jim Florio and Jim Carville. The TV nitwits are telling us that her victory can be attributed to the Republican master of illusion, Ed Rollins, her chief strategist. Rollins has apparently persuaded even himself that he was not responsible for the miserable campaign Ms. Whitman ran until the last month, taking credit only for her late surge. From where I sat here in New Jersey, the comeback was all Whitman. She surprised everyone by relentlessly defending her 30% tax cut plan, when almost every newspaper and media outlet in the state had called it a fraud. It isn't the plan I would have written, but it isn't a fraud, and it is certainly in the right direction. She overcame the cynicism of the voters by her refusal to back down, an indication of sincerity that equates with the "read my lips" line Peggy Noonan wrote for George Bush. I can stick my head out the window and already hear property values rise.
I was disappointed to see Mayor Dinkins lose to Rudy Giuliani, but I don't live in New York City, and thus have not reached the level of despair of its citizens. They had to gamble that Giuliani will turn out to be more than a guy who likes to arrest people, and toward that goal, we of course hope he brings in an economics team from the entrepreneurial class. In the end, New Yorkers could not chance whether Dinkins would, in a second term, become more engaged in trying to wrestle with the root causes of the city's decline, which require supply-side solutions. At the prodding of Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat, I offered my help to City Hall and the Dinkins campaign, but I guess it seemed easier for them to have the President and Hillary come in to campaign. A victory of form over substance. Giuliani had Bob Dole and Jack Kemp in on his behalf, a hopeful sign.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is supposed to come to a vote in two weeks, still seems to be in trouble. This is the prime suspect for today's market sag. The Democratic election defeats yesterday can only work against NAFTA, as House Democrats pull even further away from Clinton. NAFTA can only win if House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich can persuade more than 120 Republicans to vote for it, a task made difficult because he says he will "excuse" all freshmen and members from marginal districts from voting for it. This is form over substance. The Ross Perot anti-NAFTA crusade is phoney, and Perot's own standing has been plummeting as the voters have examined his gift horse. There is no issue in our time that is more form and less substance than trade protectionism -- stamped into the collective memory of our people as the cause of the Great Depression and ultimately World War II. Politicians keep trying it, because it looks so good in the polls, at first, before collective memory asserts itself. If I were Gingrich, I'd ask all marginal and freshman Republicans to take a bold, front-rank position on NAFTA, a la Christie Whitman, thus guaranteeing their re-election. All growth, including political growth, is the result of risk-taking. Jack Kemp's Buffalo district was among the most protectionist in the nation, but he'd win with 80% or 90% of the vote using passionate free-trade arguments. If Gingrich were to get his freshman on the front line for NAFTA, the Democrats would be shamed into joining in to support their President.
How about the Packwood diaries? Where do they fit? I've known Bob Packwood for more than a quarter century, having traveled as a reporter with him around Oregon in the autumn of 1966, when he campaigned in the spectacular race that unseated Democratic Senator Wayne Morse, a hero of my liberal Democratic youth. I saw Packwood yesterday, shook his hand and wished him luck, as he went into the Senate chamber to an ignominious defeat -- 94 of his colleagues voting against him. Technically he may have the stronger case, and he may win in court. Who knows? But I sympathize with those of his closest colleagues who decided they could not stand with him.
In all his years in the Senate, the worst thing I ever saw Bob Packwood do was vote against the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas -- not on substance, but on form. Had he clearly wrestled with his decision before he voted, as many did, I would not have made this connection with his current problems. But he clearly threw away one of the most important votes a Senator has, in order to curry favor with the feminist lobby he has courted assiduously over the years. It did him not the slightest good when his current difficulties surfaced, relatively petty sexual complaints compared to the behavior of many politicians I knew in this same time frame. His throwaway vote in a way left him without any anchor of support, and he now finds himself virtually alone. Curiously, one of the five senators who sided with him yesterday was Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a genuine supporter of feminist causes who nevertheless voted for Judge Thomas, after helping shred the case against him. Senator Specter subsequently withstood the full fury of the feminist lynch mob, winning re-election and a permanent place in my political Hall of Fame. In his vote for Packwood yesterday, he thumbed his nose at those furies.
It's been a bittersweet week so far, but a good one for the American people, I think, because it has been so good for reality over illusion. Chickens, as we used to say, are coming home to roost, perhaps for a long, long while.