Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House

Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House



The Pequod Review:

From the vantage point of the late 2010s, Michael Lewis's Losers (1997) is a quaint profile of a bygone era of American politics. Lewis's book covers the 1996 presidential campaign, with a focus on the leading Republican candidates who sought to unseat Bill Clinton — John McCain, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes, Morry Taylor, and Bob Dole. He examines not just the evasive and flip-flopping politicians, but also the campaign workers behind the scenes who will happily work for any candidate and seem to have few if any political convictions:

A campaign, like a fish, rots from the head, though perhaps it does so more quickly. The Dole campaign consists of slick young men in blue suits forever whispering to each other in dark corners, from campaign manager Scott Reed and press secretary Nelson Warfield right on down to the guy who carries the extra cell phones. "Rented strangers" is what conservative columnist George Will calls these people, and their prominence around Dole says a lot about the nature of our politics. The more the two parties agree on policy, the less their battles are waged along lines of principle, the more they become a game of tactics, and the more "serious" candidates like Dole depend on their rented strangers to think up putatively clever strategies. The Dole campaign pays top dollar for everything, and I get the feeling that the many rented strangers who work for it have a big personal financial stake in Dole's soldiering on, that they'll be the last to tell him that really he shouldn't be doing this again. One of their favorite techniques in New Hampshire has been to hire telemarketing firms to call Buchanan supporters and, under the guise of pollsters, relate damning untruths. (Why not? It worked on Forbes in Iowa.) In response to Buchanan's complaints, Dole's rented strangers tell reporters that Buchanan is doing the calling to a few of his supporters to tar Dole. It takes a special sort of credulity to believe them.

The campaign featured certain populist undercurrents that didn't quite catch on (but would be more fully harnessed by Donald Trump twenty years later):

The Outsiders — the agitators, the troublemakers, the champions of lost causes — are temperamentally unsuited to treating politics as if it were a rigged fight. The Outsider is by nature indiscreet, unstable, and risk loving and as a result will rarely land himself a seat in power Alley. (Pat Buchanan’s drift from Insider to Outsider mirrors the drift in American politics away from large-bore crisis management and toward small-bore career management.) Occasionally the Outsider may call himself a Democrat or a Republican, but he can’t be contained by either party, because his enemy is not the other party but the entire system. He has a taste for the structural issues: campaign finance reform, global trade. The current crop of Outsiders — Buchanan on the right, Perot in the center, Jesse Jackson on the left — stood together against the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, and for campaign finance reform. Each in his own way speaks to the dissatisfaction with politics that 70 percent of Americans claim to feel. Each in his own way is guided by some mythic view of the past. And each in his own way addresses the central problem of politics: that an awful lot lies beyond its reach. To succeed, an Outsider must grab for what he knows he cannot have. He’ll probably never get it, but he might knock it loose so that someone else will, one day.

Lewis also doesn't spare the voters, who seem uninterested in truly substantive debate and demand very little from their candidates. But perhaps there is a silver lining in that: "Apathy is a perfectly intelligent response to our current politics. And it is a sign of a stable society when who gets to be President makes no difference in your life."