Ancient Roman Advice for the 2012 Candidates

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:18 AM

“I’m Mitt Romney and Probo hoc Nuntius

Advice from ancient Rome for the 2012 presidential candidates.


Illustration by Derf Backderf.

Right after Michigan and Arizona held their primaries, Time’s Michael Scherer noted how creaky and old-fashioned the campaign has really been. Reporters obsess over Twitter, but only 2 percent of voters said they got their news from there. Cable news scrapes YouTube every day in search of the next viral campaign moment; only 3 percent of voters said they follow the campaign on YouTube. “We live in the age of the iPhone,” wrote Scherer, “yet the 2012 presidential campaign has so far been run on Betamax.”

What if it’s even creakier than that? I remember the bygone days of September, when lunkhead political reporters were explaining how new media saved candidates from the drudgery of old-style campaigning. Nope! The last men standing in the GOP race are Rick Santorum, who out-hustled everyone else in Iowa; Ron Paul, who spent four years crusading to take over the party; Newt Gingrich, who’s got a casino mogul bankrolling his campaign; and Mitt Romney, who’s rented out the airwaves through April. Turns out the rules for winning this campaign are the rules that have governed every political campaign for decades … or even longer.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

How long? How about 2,076 years? Historian Philip Freeman has translated the Commentariolum Petitionis, a short tract written in 64 BC. In the Commentariolum, Quintus Tullius Cicero compiled political advice for his brother Marcus. The elder Cicero took the advice and won, becoming a consul of Rome—apparently an underdog upset of Obamanian proportions. Now Princeton University Press has published Freeman’s translation with a catchier yet somehow less dignified title: How to Win an Election. Would you believe it? The advice holds up. These candidates must have classics scholars on staff, because a close read of Cicero reveals they’re following his counsel.

As for those who you have inspired with hopea zealous and devoted groupyou must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them.”

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians
by Quintus Tullius Cicero; translated by Philip Freeman
Princeton University Press

Cicero’s acolyte: Barack Obama. If there’s a voter out there who still maintains as much hope in Obama as he had in 2008, this guy has a D.B. Cooper-esque ability to hide from reporters. Obama’s response to his Hope Problem has been to hype up the scary things Republicans might do if they beat him, and to very specifically tell voter blocs—gay voters, for example—that he delivered more than they thought he did. Will this reinvigorate the hope voters once had in him? It remains to be seen—but he’s trying.

Cicero: You should pay special attention to the centuries that represent the businessmen and moderately wealthy citizens.

Cicero’s acolyte: Newt Gingrich. His campaign would have ended months ago if he didn’t have Sheldon Adelson and his genetic companions cutting checks to the Winning Our Future Super PAC. Adelson wants a president who’ll defend Israel. Gingrich, in response, says he’ll move to American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That’s special attention.

Cicero: You don’t have to actually bring your opponents to trial on corruption charges, just let them know you are willing to do so. Fear works even better than actual litigation.

Cicero’s acolyte: Mitt Romney. There’s no smoking gun yet in the Solyndra story. The lack of smoke is starting to embarrass the Republicans combing through files. But all candidate Romney needs to do is mention “Solyndra” and his audiences know that the Obama administration is shoveling money out to incompetent donors. The auto bailout turned out to be popular. How to combat that? Accuse Obama of a corrupt deal with the “union stooges” who kept their jobs.

Cicero: Our city is a cesspool of humanity, a place of deceit, plots, and vice of every imaginable kind. Anywhere you turn you will see arrogance, stubbornness, malevolence, pride, and hatred. Amid such a swirl of evil, it takes a remarkable man with sound judgment and great skill to avoid stumbling, gossip, and betrayal.

Cicero’s acolyte: Rick Santorum. Add a couple of Satans to this line, and you’ve basically got Santorum’s stump speech.

Cicero: Don’t leave Rome! Being assiduous means to stay put and that is what you must do. There is no time for vacations during a campaign.

Cicero’s acolyte:
Rick Santorum transferred his life to the first caucus state and actually lost count of how many Pizza Ranches he visited in Iowa. If you have been to a Pizza Ranch, you understand that no one does this because they enjoy eating food. Ron Paul, who’s avowedly running a “delegate strategy” instead of a “big, showy wins” strategy, could stand to follow Santorum’s example. He spends weekends relaxing in Texas! That’s no way to become consul.

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