'Study McCain and do the opposite'

And other lessons for candidate Whitman from a renowned campaign watcher.

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By Joe Klein


(Fortune Magazine) -- About a year ago I heard that my book "Politics Lost" had become a hot item on John McCain's presidential campaign bus. Meg Whitman, who was advising McCain on economic matters, was recommending it to everyone. I was, of course, flattered. And it sort of stood to reason: I had celebrated McCain's maverick 2000 run for the presidency in the book. And McCain seemed to embody the message of "Politics Lost": Be yourself. Don't let consultants talk you out of taking impolitic positions if you really believe in them. Don't be afraid to take a position or two that might be unpopular with the public - it will give you credibility, ballast, a hint of courage.

Oh, well.

McCain's campaign was a disaster. If I were writing "Politics Lost" today, I'd use it as exhibit A of what not to do. It was a festival of stupid consultant tricks - attempts by Steve Schmidt, McCain's strategist, to divert attention from the substance of the campaign with trivia as it became clear that his candidate had an uphill climb. My favorite was the day Schmidt and company insisted that Barack Obama's use of the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was a reference to Sarah Palin. There were other gimmicks - the ad that posited Obama as a celebrity like Paris Hilton, the use of a deadbeat named Joe the Plumber as a totemic Middle American. All of which was lunkheaded in a year when the American public was in a very serious mood.

So lesson No. 1 for Meg Whitman: Study McCain and do the opposite. You might also study Barack Obama, who ran the smoothest campaign I've ever seen. It didn't hurt that being himself - preternaturally calm, mature, reasonable - was exactly what the public was looking for. In retrospect, it also seems rather amazing that he has been absolutely intent on enacting every one of his campaign promises. He is running the presidency he said he would during the campaign, and that is very rare.

Lesson No. 2, also from the McCain experience: Even if you act like yourself on the campaign trail, it doesn't guarantee you'll win - especially if the public doesn't like who you are. McCain was very much himself at two crucial moments during the election - the selection of Sarah Palin and his decision to shut down his campaign when the financial crisis hit. He was a high-stakes-gambling, shoot-from-the-hip fighter jock. He seemed precisely the wrong sort of person to reassure the public as the bottom dropped out of the economy.

Lesson No. 3, Ms. Whitman, is particular to people like you - businesspeople who seek to enter elective office: You can't run the state of California like a business. Your business experience will pay off when it comes to clearing away bureaucratic debris and streamlining operations. But the purpose of governance is fundamentally different from that of eBay: It is not a market. It is a long-term, nonprofit proposition, especially now. The era of quick fixes - tax cuts, for example - is over. There is a need to think of your term as a four-year proposition, not a quarterly profit-and-loss statement. There is the need, right now, to rebuild the foundations of the state - and plan for a future that is likely to be very different from the easy-credit, Ponzified paper economy of the past. You're a visionary. You developed a product noted for its simplicity and flexibility. Those are two qualities that governance in the 21st century badly needs.

Lesson No. 4 is pure politics: Giving the public what it wants is a double-edged sword, but you do have to give people what they need. You have to listen to your audiences, sense them very carefully. You'll have polling and focus groups to help with this - but your eyes and ears have to be better than any focus group. Again, an example from Obama: As the election year progressed, he sensed that his audiences were not in the mood for the high-blown rhetoric that had been his calling card: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." He stripped down his rhetoric, made it meat-and-potatoes practical. You may have to do the opposite, for all I know. The point is, if you don't change and grow during the course of a campaign, you lose.

Finally, if you're not enjoying yourself, quit. If you're really uncomfortable out there, the public will see that too. People won't elect anyone they sense is going to be a nervous, uptight, or phony presence in their living rooms. You have to really love the game - not just the policy, not just the prospect of governing, but the sheer animal combat of politics - if you want to win.

JOE KLEIN is a political columnist for Time.  To top of page

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