The unelected professionals who run campaigns compete in a fiercely Darwinian system. Most can expect a career arc and professional longevity similar to the latest Hollywood starlet’s, and even the best are routinely replaced. Ideology and technology change with election cycles, and failure can strike suddenly. It’s a cutthroat calling—and when you’re finished, and everyone else has moved on, you may well harbor lingering regrets about the tactics you’ve used to win races. If you’ve worked in national politics at almost any point in the last forty years, chances are things got worse, not better, on your watch. That can gnaw at you.
The ranks of voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats have grown dramatically over the years.
It certainly gnawed at three diners gathered in a downtown Washington restaurant on a chilly October evening just before the 2005 elections, as an unlikely scene unfolded. Over dinner, some of the best political minds of the 1970s, Republican and Democratic, reached bipartisan consensus: none could any longer recognize the political parties in which they had once been major players. The cynical focus on divisive “wedge” issues and the ferocious negativity of recent campaigns, which fed in to an inability to govern once elected, dismayed everyone at the table.
Doug Bailey had pioneered modern political consulting, working with his late partner John Deardourff on behalf of Gerald Ford and other Republicans. Joining him were Jerry Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s brain trust in the 1976 election that deposed Ford. Graying now, each successful in a career after politics, the three had assembled to discuss plans to produce a book and a documentary film about television’s impact on the political process—something each had helped bring about, and each had found cause to regret. During the course of a year spent researching their project, even these veterans had been alarmed to discover just how dysfunctional the system had become.