Joe Klein laments the "disservice" of overcautiousness performed by political consultants to today's presidential candidates, concluding,
I would have loved a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate where the two sat down and just talked about where they agreed and disagreed, rather than floating whoppers and scoring points. But I suspect that in our mature, over-marketed democracy, those days are over.
I certainly join Klein in his imagination. Such a debate would have been inspiring--and politically lethal to Mitt Romney. Where I part with Klein is in his history.
For starters, and somewhat parenthetically, neither Lincoln nor Douglas spoke for 60 or 90 uninterrupted minutes without an eye toward "targeted" audiences. Both stumbled around, as any extemporaneous speaker would do, and professional editors (today's "political consultants") later came through with cleansed transcripts, which we now read as that which was flawlessly delivered. Four years later President Lincoln, acting largely as his own consultant, temporized his principled inclinations on slavery for just the right political moment to do the forever ethically right thing. For the impeccably cautious Lincoln it was a negligible contest: the politics of emancipation easily trumped the morality of emancipation.
His presidential predecessors were, by and large, keenly sensitive to their party's operatives' consultations (both of which--operatives and consultations--tended to the rather shifty) and his presidential successors did much the same. Karl Rove as a modern phenom? Pshaw. His heroic model was McKinley's Mark Hanna.
From an aging plutocrat's "log cabin" campaign to an indifferent governor's "compassionate conservatism," American presidential campaigns have never bowed to any mature ideal of an under-marketed democracy. They've always been circuses. The only difference this time is that one of the candidates has in fact borrowed from another nation's exceedingly unpleasant history ... of the Big Lie campaign.