The Nunn Memo

If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like inside the high-powered world of American political campaigning, the Nunn memo — a 144-page internal document just leaked to the media from Michelle Nunn’s campaign for senator of Georgia — is just the thing for you. It will not rank with the Pentagon Papers or the Nixon tapes as a revelation of historical import, but it does provide some insight into the calculating, cynical, and sometimes farcical goings-on in contemporary vote-getting.

Most of the memo’s contents will surely not surprise. But they do provide vivid confirmation of some of the public’s worst imaginings.

The importance of money in politics is not news. But the extent to which a candidate for statewide office must devote time and energy to it may still shock the average citizen.

In hot pursuit of $18 to $20 million to finance her bid to beat out Republican David Perdue to succeed the retiring Saxby Chambliss, Nunn (the Georgia Democrat  is the daughter of Sam Nunn, the state’s longtime senator) the candidate plans to spend as much as 80 percent of her time fund-raising.

Even during the remaining 20 percent of the time, when she is unchained from the phones, the candidate’s handlers will keep her on a short leash. The memo warns that any “slight deviation from the agreed-upon message could end up being very damaging to the campaign.” To avoid such a catastrophe, she must thoroughly internalize “the Q. and A. document” so that she will never be caught pausing for a moment to think, fumbling for an answer, or — perish the thought! — admit she doesn’t know the answer. (Of course, this is not just conceit; the opponents will be filming and tracking her every move, waiting to go viral with the slightest gaffe.)

Much of the memo analyzes potential support according to every known ethnic, racial, religious and socio-economic category. Even trial lawyers have their own custom-tailored appeal.

Jews represent a “tremendous financial opportunity,” according to the memo. “Michelle’s position on Israel will largely determine the level of support here,” the memo said. “This applies not only to PACs, but individual donors as well.” What is the candidate’s position on that paramount concern to Jewish voters? “Message: TBD.” To be determined.

Perhaps Nunn is waiting to see who comes out the winner in the latest round between Israel and Hamas before getting out in front on that one. A wrong answer could, after all, end up being very damaging to the campaign.

But unconscious humor is, as is so often the case, the funniest. The document authors stress that the campaign should not forget to make the most of one of Nunn’s biggest assets — her “authenticity.”

When one has finished chortling over these goodies, one has to realize that the unfortunate reality is that there is nothing unusual here. Nunn’s advisors are proffering the same kind of advice as their competitors in this and countless other electoral campaigns. It was merely their misfortune that somebody turned the lights on when they were up to it.

The candidates and their advisors are not really to blame. They are victims of the system as much as anyone else. They live in mortal fear that some blogger or video cameraman will catch the candidate in a moment of unpreparedness, or take something perfectly innocuous out of context. So they must be perpetually on their guard.

Regarding the overwhelming focus on money, there is simply no other way to get a message across. A candidate who can’t match the opposition’s spending for ads is at a tremendous disadvantage. Study after study has shown that the first task of a politician is to become known to the public. If they never heard of him or her, they won’t vote for him or her. And if s/he can’t afford the air time, they will never hear of him or her.

What can be done? Repeated efforts to fashion legislation to regulate campaign spending have failed.

Perhaps the Nunn memo will have some positive effect. It could raise voter awareness of the calculations and manipulations aimed at them, and prompt them to be more skeptical about the presentations of the politicians. More than that, voters should do their best to ignore the ads and the “authenticity” of the candidates, and inquire instead into their experience, qualifications and voting records.

The more that voters do this, the less manipulable they become, and the less politicians will rely on the stuff that the Nunn memo is made of.

Alternately, a more radical idea would be a drastic restriction on the length of political campaigns. In Britain, the last nationwide campaign lasted one month and virtually nothing was spent by either campaign (compared with U.S. standards). In the U.K. election in 2008, for example, a spending cap of 20 million pounds, about $33 million, was imposed on each of the major parties. Of course, a ban on paid broadcast advertising or any ads on matters of “political or industrial controversy” helped.

Such restrictions in the U.S. would be rejected immediately as unrealistic, like banning hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Hot dog vendors, ad salesmen, professional media advisors and lobbyists would be in line to protest. They would invoke the First Amendment and the sacred right to spend untold millions on buying the public’s votes.

Maybe these suggestions are unrealistic. If so, the public will have to consign the whole exasperating problem to the TBD file.