Do strong campaigns make good presidencies?

Do strong campaigns make good presidencies?

Do strong campaigns make good presidencies?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 16 2008 12:22 PM

I Campaigned. I Won. I Governed.

Does a strong campaign machine make a good presidency?

Gerald and Betty Ford at the Republican National Convention in 1976. Click image to expand.
President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, at the 1976 Republican National Convention

"If she can't run her own campaign well, how can she run the country?" That's the question some of Sen. Clinton's critics have raised to undermine her candidacy. Outgunned in fundraising, outsmarted on delegate selection rules, buffeted by staff shake-ups and feuds, the Clinton campaign is offered as Exhibit A against her, recently by E.J. Dionne and Peter Beinart in the Washington Post and a lead piece in Politico.

So, how strong is the underlying assumption that campaign management is a reliable guide to performance in office? Not very. For one thing, the definition of a well-run campaign is less than clear.  For another, a couple of presidents who rode excellent campaigns into office stumbled badly once they crossed the threshold of the White House.

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History suggests, to begin with, that's it's a highly shaky proposition to assume that a campaign was run badly because its candidate didn't win. In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey left the riotous Chicago convention with a bitterly divided party, virtually no money, and 15 points behind Richard Nixon in the polls. By Election Day, he closed the gap to 0.5 percent; if the campaign had gone on two or three days longer, Humphrey might well have won. When President Gerald Ford left the GOP's fractured Kansas City convention in 1976, he was trailing Jimmy Carter by double-digit margins, and nearly half the party wanted a different nominee. On Election Day, after a shrewd upbeat campaign ("I'm Feeling Good About America, I'm Feeling Good About Me"), Ford finished barely two points behind Jimmy Carter. It's likely that only his clumsy pronouncement of a liberated Eastern Europe during a debate kept him from an upset victory.

Consider another assumption: that staff shake-ups are proof of a badly run campaign. Depending on the timing, they can be the opposite—signs of a candidate's ability to change course. In 1980, Ronald Reagan fired campaign manager John Sears and two other top aides on the day of the New Hampshire primary, before the results were known. Al Gore shook up his campaign team on several occasions in the run-up to the 2000 primaries. John Kerry ousted Jim Jordan just before the 2004 season began and went from little more than an asterisk in the polls to a triumphal sweep through the primary calendar. (A later move, cutting loose media maven John Margolis after a turf battle with Bob Shrum, may well have been a huge self-inflicted wound, given Margolis' ability to connect with middle America. But that doesn't diminish Kerry's primary record.)

Another caveat: A candidate can, all on his or her own, undermine the most impressively disciplined campaign. We won't know for a while whether Obama's ham-fisted account of working-class blues will prove fatal. If so, it is his failure, not a failure of management.

But OK, let's assume a candidate's performance on the trail is thoroughly solid, and he has thus proved he can handle the political terrain. What does this tell us about his potential presidency? Sometimes, really nothing.

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Take a look at Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. By most measures, it was well-run, and not just because he won. There were no staff upheavals (at least, none that made news). Midcourse corrections were effective (when the campaign realized that a lot of voters saw Clinton as elitist, it hit the biographical grace notes hard and put him on Arsenio Hall playing sax). The choice of Al Gore as a running mate, the bus tour through the heartland—these were exemplary political moves.

What followed, upon Clinton's election, were two years of political disaster upon disaster: a clumsy, chaotic transition (highlighted by the collapse of two attorney general nominations); a stumbling, unplanned focus on the service of gays in the military; a budget that passed both houses of Congress by one vote only and hung many Democrats in Congress out to dry by forcing them to commit to a later-scuttled energy tax; and Hillary Clinton's infamous health care initiative. It took a midterm Republican sweep in 1994, and the prospect of a one-term presidency, for the Clinton White House to stabilize. In short, the skills of the Clinton campaign proved essentially untransferrable to the White House, principally because campaigning and governing are not the same.

Or consider George W. Bush's 2004 re-election effort. Even with the inadvertent assistance rendered by John Kerry, it took a disciplined, focused effort to win a second term at a moment when thumping majorities said they preferred a new direction for the country. And Bush's team had that focus, evident in the utter absence of turf wars and staff feuds. Further, the "micro-targeting" that unearthed Bush voters in the unlikeliest of precincts—recounted in Applebee's America—showed that the Bush-Cheney campaign mastered new political tools far better than its rival.

And yet, Bush's second term? If you can find someone who regards it as a success, you will be talking to someone on the White House or Republican National Committee payroll. (Indeed, if you're having a sufficiently private, off-the-record talk, you're not likely to hear a whole lot of praise for the Bush record, even from that corner.) From failed Social Security reform to Katrina to the spending that disheartened so many conservatives to the management of Iraq, the incompetence level of this administration has been breathtaking.

What this means, I think, is that there's a fundamental flaw in the notion that a presidential campaign is a good gauge of a presidency. Campaigns test many things: the ability to raise money, to frame effective (and often simplistic) arguments in the 24/7 spin cycle, to survive on bad food and little sleep. But they don't answer the questions about a president—can he or she work with Congress? Deal with a political setback? Hold on to the public's trust?—that matter most after Jan. 20.