Dossier D.C.: Political Punch

Strange bedfellows aren’t news inside the beltway. Bob Squier and Alex Castellanos working together is. The rival political consultants are collaborating on a campaign to revive the public’s interest in politics, an alliance as shocking as Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner joining forces to promote the advancement of women.
Still, politics is a tricky business, and both men are veterans of the political ad wars. Squier, the perpetually tanned, white-haired principal of Squier Knapp Ochs Dunn in Washington, D.C., has been hailed as the ad genius who helped Clinton get elected–twice. Castellanos, head of National Media in Alexandria, Va., is the legendary Republican consultant who spearheaded some of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) toughest races. Castellanos also joined Bob Dole’s ’96 presidential team at the 11th hour, after other strategists had been chewed up and spit out.
The big question is: Can consultants renowned for running negative campaigns that feed voter apathy and public cynicism about politics get people excited about the political process? “It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse,” admits Castellanos. “Both of us are aware of that, and neither of us are apologetic about being foxes.”
That’s not how Paul Taylor sees it. Taylor, a former Washington Post journalist and the founder of the D.C.-based Alliance for Better Campaigns, has united Squier and Castellanos, the yin and yang of partisan media, to spread his message. He wants kinder, gentler, more substantive campaigns. “Bob and Alex are widely acknowledged to be at the top of their craft,” he says.
The enterprising crusader has used $1.4 million of a $3.7 million, three-year Pew Charitable Trust grant for Squier and Castellanos to create two 30-second spots, which will begin airing in September. Taylor believes these savvy image makers can produce a campaign that excites the public. And the pressure is on. Since the nonprofit alliance can only afford a modest buy in 10 markets, the spots need to generate a significant buzz.
Enter Squier and Castellanos, who specialized in attack ads during the ’96 presidential election. Almost every Clinton ad showed Dole, portrayed in black and white, next to Newt Gingrich, with a musical score reminiscent of Jaws. The ads drove home the idea that if Dole were elected, he’d bring Gingrich in tow. Castellanos had less time to make an impact, so he recast Dole from cranky curmudgeon to coalition builder and decorated war vet. Clinton potshots were just icing on the cake.
Still, Taylor doesn’t blame consultants for plummeting voter turnout. “You could also point the finger at journalists and the politicians themselves,” he says. “But we take a pass on that. We want to get everybody involved in a world where the first imperative is to win elections and call everybody to a higher standard.”
Taylor’s timing is key. Outside the Beltway, the November elections hold little interest. There has been a precipitous decline in the number of Americans who follow government and public affairs–only 9 percent read news about state candidates and elections, according to the Pew Research Center News Interest Index. Not surprisingly, more Americans followed the death of Frank Sinatra, the advent of Viagra and Indonesia’s tumult in June than their local elections.
Taylor thinks journalists, broadcasters, ad strategists and politicians can reverse that process by working together to save politics from itself. “We are encouraging candidates and broadcasters to take campaign discourse beyond attack ads and sound bites,” Taylor says.
The alliance is calling on local TV stations to host a series of minidebates that would air in the closing weeks of state and local campaigns. Some broadcasters, such as KCBS in Los Angeles, are already on board and calling for others to cover the elections with better programming. The idea is to spend less time on campaign strategy and more time on the candidates’ platforms and backgrounds.
But can political animals police themselves? Legislation that forces campaign reform hasn’t worked, and the latest campaign-finance reform bill imploded this session. Indeed, since 1960, 163 campaign bills have been introduced; many required broadcasters to provide free airtime for politicians to talk about issues. They died 163 deaths. (The idea behind free airtime is that pols would spend more time working for you and less time drumming up money from special-interest groups for the next TV campaign.)
Politicians, however, don’t like reform bills. Incumbents may lose their edge if their opponents enjoy free airtime. Broadcasters don’t like the bills because time slots for ads could be sold for top dollar. Giving ad time away is not the clarion call of the ’90s.
Which brings us back to self-regulation. At press time, the Federal Communications Commission crafted a notice of inquiry (NOI) document making recommendations on free airtime. Less aggressive than an actual ruling, the NOI offers guidelines in the area of campaign-finance reform that could dovetail with Taylor’s ambitious project. That is, if members of Congress don’t balk again at the idea of the FCC telling them what to do.
Ever hopeful, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which has affiliations with grassroots organizations in 10 states, wants to improve standards for campaign conduct and discourse in the 1998 gubernatorial elections. It also hopes to have partners in every state by the year 2000. In addition, Taylor is working with the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, which will analyze the effectiveness of the ads.
Rewriting the ground rules is Squier and Castellanos’ biggest challenge to date. Can the two adversaries work together? “You reform politics by getting the donkey and the elephant on board first. It’s a bit like Noah’s ark,” Castellanos says. (Squier was traveling with Al Gore, one of his new clients and oldest friends, at press time.)
“We’re going to remind ourselves [in the campaign] that politics is democracy by another name,” Castellanos says. “Yes, it’s chaotic, messy and negative It’s all those things. But it is also the best system in the world.”
“The ads will be a two-cushion shot,” adds Taylor. “We are encouraging changes in behavior among voters and more robust coverage in the media.” Taylor says he wants Squier and Castellanos to “find a way to be positive and affirming about the importance of politics while acknowledging the cynicism that exists.”
Of course, the reasons that politics has fallen into disrepute are more complicated than negative campaigns, a lack of free airtime or ill-conceived media coverage. The government can’t sell itself because it’s tarnished by scandal, particularly those involving President Clinton. Consequently, many Gen Xers have tuned out politics and its bloodletting. They have no party affiliation, and they’ve never voted.
In short, it may take a dramatic public catharsis–a resolution of the presidential scandals or real congressional reform–to bring people back to the polls. Hopefully, Alex and Bob will prove me wrong.