Politico Primary: Down the Rabbit Hole

Only in DC could Hillary, Condi, and Erskine be considered a break from the ‘governing class’

I don’t begrudge the folks at Politico their decision to launch a gimmicky new feature called “Politico Primary,” in which readers are invited to nominate and vote on independent presidential candidates for the 2012 election. Sure, there’s absolutely no reason to think an independent or third-party candidate could seriously contest the presidency, and there’s abundant reason to think that if, by some miracle, an independent president did win, he or she would be hamstrung when it comes to actually running the country. But Politico is being light-hearted about what is essentially a reader engagement enterprise—it’s presented as “part parlor game, part reporting assignment”—and there’s nothing wrong with a little blue-sky thinking from time to time. Heck, it could, theoretically, even be a vehicle to inject new voices and new perspectives into the political process, something we always support here.

But, but, but. Did they have to make the thing so terrible? Maybe some creative reader nominations will salvage Politico Primary (or maybe not—see update below), but the project’s original installation—in which executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief White House correspondent Mike Allen select and make cases for five candidates—captures all the worst parts of the Politico gestalt. Indifference to policy, an eagerness to see politicians as products to be marketed, undue deference to institutional authority, a fetish for “centrism,” regurgitated conventional wisdom, a breathtaking failure of imagination—it’s all here.

The feature’s single most aggravating aspect is the gaping chasm between Politico’s pretensions to outside-the-box thinking and populist sentiment and the crushing, establishment-approved obviousness of the first five candidates. In the introduction to the feature, VandeHei and Allen write that, “the public has had it with Washington and conventional politics,” Americans have “lost trust and respect in the conventional governing class,” and there is “mounting evidence voters don’t see” President Obama or any of the Republican contenders as good options.

Those are big, bold statements. So who’s one of the five candidates VandeHei and Allen put forward to fill this void and restore trust and respect? Hillary Clinton—yes, the Hillary Clinton who has spent two decades as part of the “governing class,” and was very nearly our forty-fourth president. If that weren’t obtuse enough, VandeHei and Allen argue that Clinton would be a viable independent candidate in part because “her family’s access to rich donors is legendary.” Because, as we all know, only legacy candidates with legendary access to rich donors can restore trust in public office.

The other candidates are no more inspired, and hardly offer more of a solution to the problem VandeHei and Allen say needs solving. Empty-headed pundits are forever pining for military leaders to save us from political dysfunction, so of course David Petraeus is here, apparently on the grounds that voters are craving a “no-labels” candidate, especially if he has a strong chin, salutes smartly, and looks good in uniform. (Actual opening sentence to the Petraeus blurb: “In the end, every voter wants the same darn thing: a strong leader they can truly believe in.”)

A corollary to the military savior fantasy is the business savior fantasy, so there’s also a place for Generic CEO, played here Cisco’s John Chambers. Ostensibly, Chambers’s appeal is that he knows how to create jobs in a competitive global economy. (Though not always, apparently.) VandeHei and Allen don’t really say what such a policy agenda might look like. They have, though, given thought to how to package Chambers for voter consumption:

He could run as an authentic outsider, someone who hasn’t spent his life pursuing public office. A Washington-has-no-damn-clue message on navigating and dominating the world economy would resonate for many. His smooth speaking style and self-confidence would play well on the national stage.

Moving on, we get to Condoleeza Rice—because, of course, former Secretaries of State represent such a sharp break from “the conventional governing class.” The case for Rice seems to be that she has held both Republican and Democratic associations, she is generally seen as moderate and temperate, and she balanced the budget while serving as Stanford provost. As for whether she has, you know, anything to say about our current political and economic challenges, VandeHei and Allen acknowledge that, “Rice would need to find a sharper, more populist voice.” But don’t worry about that, they assure us—“she can play at this level.”

Rounding out the line-up is Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff (so unconventional!) who served as co-chair of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission. I can’t decide whether Bowles is the least depressing or most depressing of the candidates here. On the one hand, he’s closely identified with a specific agenda that is responsive to a real, long-term national challenge. On the other hand, it’s the wrong challenge to be obsessing about right now. VandeHei and Allen open the Bowles blurb thusly:

The most depressing reality of modern governance is this: The current system seems incapable of dealing with our debt addiction before it becomes a crippling crisis.

No, no, no. The most depressing reality of modern governance is that the current system seems incapable of dealing with the fact that 25 million Americans can’t find full-time work. Meanwhile, though the long-run budget problems are real, rates on Treasury bonds are dropping so low that, as Karl Smith notes, the real cost of financing the federal government over ten years is “quickly approaching zero.” That VandeHei and Allen don’t get this is a perfect example of how the unemployed become invisible, and the deficit becomes paramount, in the eyes of the Beltway press.

The whole Politico Primary feature is especially maddening because Politico can be so much better than this. Its horse-race coverage is often stellar. Though not an investigative powerhouse, it does solid work on campaign finance and influence peddling. And its coverage of federal agencies, while sometimes scant on policy specifics, does a good job tracking which side is prevailing in important arguments.

But when Politico decides to be splashy, it still often comes across as witless; the savvy present in its day-to-day work simply vanishes. And even if this is just a fun reader engagement gimmick, readers deserve better than that.

Update, 10/10: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reader nominations (selected by VandeHei and Allen from submissions via Twitter) are as uninspired as Politico’s picks. One ex-general apparently wasn’t enough, so now we’ve got Colin Powell alongside David Petraeus. And one professional deficit hawk apparently wasn’t enough, so now we’ve got David Walker—former head of the Government Accountability Office, and now CEO of the Peterson Foundation—alongside Erskine Bowles. Then there’s a moderate Democrat, Virginia Senator Mark Warner; a moderate Republican, former Utah Governor (and, of course, current actual presidential candidate) Jon Huntsman; and a billionaire independent, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

None of these folks is going to be the next president, but they might all share the stage at a No Labels conference one day. If nothing else, the exercise shows that even in an era of unprecedented partisan polarization, what used to be called the “Beltway consensus” still has a deep bench.

My favorite nugget from the new batch of candidate blurbs is the line at the end of Walker’s entry that notes he was nominated by Mark McKinnon, a “former strategist for President George W. Bush” who is quoted endlessly in the Beltway media. Because, again, this feature is motivated by the failure of “the conventional governing class.”

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.