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Wearing Television



Elizabeth Drew is a fossil, and, predictably, her view of American Democracy is fossilized.  She is about to become another one of these people who have hung on too long.  Now she is concerned about democracy, and money as speech these days.  She is very concerned about positive ID voting and SuperPACs.  It sounds like a Democratic whine.  And it's so wrong it's almost upside-down.  How could a woman who's spent her life in politics come to this?

If you don't know the name--and it's possible if you're under 40 that you don't--Elizabeth Drew was for many years The New Yorker's top political correspondent.  (She may still be--I don't read the magazine anymore).  She was also a more-than-occasional talking head on McNeil-Lehrer (she may still be--I don't watch the Lehrer News Hour anymore).  Those who actually know her work know it on fossilized media.

Elizabeth Drew also happens to think a lot like Parke Skelton, John Shallman, and the occasional if perpetually entertaining LA dabbler Ace Smith.  Who also may be thinking upside-down these days.  All three, like Elizabeth Drew, keep trying to sell to the narrow slices of media with whom they interact that money matters more than it actually does today--because what, after all, can money buy? Money buys, most notably, TV and direct mail--the things that pay the consultant's bills most of all.  But by 2013, those two ways of selling candidates to the public should be equally fossilized as Elizabeth Drew.

In recent years in Los Angeles, we have seen candidates applying the Villaraigosa 2005 formula ("it doesn't matter unless it's on TV") to increasingly dismal results.  We have seen candidates spending ungodly amounts on TV and direct mail smear politics getting jujitsued by people who know how to take their message to the public for a song. 

In 2013, TV is going to matter so little to the Mayor's race as to be a second-tier media consideration, as newspaper endorsements have become.  TV somewhat mattered in 2009 only because local media was only interested in candidates who could afford to buy television time--but even since 2009 the Times's influence has fallen off. 

The fossils vote, too, in higher numbers than the rest of us.   But the problem for the long-standing, big-swinging consultants and their candidates even with this constituency is that the people who watch television are increasingly among the crankiest of the cranky, and they distrust career politicians--the kind of people who have been on TV a lot--most of all.  Candidates who have calculated their whole campaign around as much free television publicity as possible (Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti in particular) are going to be stunned to learn that this is only likely to backfire on them: by the time they get to 2013, they will be wearing the hirsute identity of "television politician" like a Planet of the Apes costume, only looking repulsive for their overexposure.  (Already people are complaining to me about Greuel's ceaseless Controller-controlled one-minute TV grabs).  When the candidate starts actually buying ads, they'll ironically be seen by the only people who watch television--and if you wonder who those are, just look at the other kinds of advertising on TV--not as a steady hand, but as part of the problem. 

Today's successful political consultant is not gruff, as yesterday's was indeed gruff.  Today's successful political consultant is friendly, sunny, and not necessarily a big spender but certainly a big thinker, one who knows how to turn TV exposure inside-out.

It took Joe Trippi a long time to get it right, but he got it right in the Jerry Brown campaign: he turned Whitman's own ability to buy media against her, making her appear like she had already been around for too long.  That is the new formula: mainstream media, television in particular, belongs to the opponent, not to you.