Monday, 3 August 2009

“How to Rig an Election”, by Allen Raymond & Ian Spiegelman (Simon & Schuster)


An insider look into the Republican electioneering apparatus

It would be easy to dismiss this book as the work of a disgruntled former insider; Raymond rose through the ranks of Republican electioneering quickly, moving from local to national elections in just five years. Usually victorious, he came a cropper when he was asked to do something that was borderline illegal (jamming Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire). After helping elect many Republicans, his lack of ideological purity (he’s a North Eastern moderate) meant that, “When the shit hit the fan, my political party and my former colleagues not only threw me under the bus but then blamed me for getting run over.”

One might consider that the man has a considerable axe to grind, considering his string of GOP election successes. However, while it is clear that Raymond still holds a grudge against the Republican Party machine-operators, this is more a memoir of his experiences and observations from the frontlines of American elections and his time in the RLC (which opposed the RNC) and as a leading partner in Equally, given the betrayal by his colleagues – his co-conspirator received about $3million towards his defence from the GOP, Raymond received none – it’s not surprising that Raymond decided to help prosecutors and the DA in uncovering and shining a light on the tactics the GOP uses.

Raymond starts with a short introduction about his background, before diving straight in to his political upbringing. Starting as a grass-roots operative for the Bush/Quayle 1992 election, before moving on to simple, local New Jersey politics, he rose to New Jersey congressional elections, and then starting shifting his base around the country. He worked for Ellen Harley in Pennsylvania, in an attempt to take advantage of the Clinton 1993 tax-hike on the wealthy to create a Republican victory of the House and Senate (only not Harvey’s). He then moved up to be in charge of the Northeast region elections for the RNC, under the mentorship of Haley Barbour.

After the electoral sweep, the GOP and its operatives “spent the next eight years giving the truth such a beating every time it showed its face that it eventually just stopped coming around altogether.” Equally, the adherence to ideological purity was something that seems to have put Raymond off, though (he makes clear) not enough to actually switch sides or try too hard to change things. This GOP ideological focus even ran to opposing likely winners if they happened to be pro-choice, just as Ellen Harley was: “The mouth-breathers who decide GOP primaries might allow people who steal their money and send their children to impossible wars get away with anything, but they’ll cut no such slack for baby-killers.” All Republicans became subordinate to the Southern Strategy, even if their platform had nothing to do with Republican victories (as in the Northeast, where it likely would have hindered GOP candidates); they didn’t want your membership unless you behaved the way they wanted you to behave. This was a problem, as Raymond points out that,

“No offense to the true believers, but it’s hard to get any serious business done with someone from the God Squad twisting your ear about the evils of stem cell research while an NRA lifer demands your assurance that the black helicopters won’t be swooping down to deprive him of his twin-mounted .50-caliber Brownings.”

Raymond is very good at both highlighting the skill with which the party apparatus can spin issues and convince others, while also showing the absurdity of voters’ weaknesses in falling for these underhand tactics time and again. For example, voters were so offended that the GOP “stole the presidency” that “they actually voted to maintain [the Republican] congressional majority in the 2002 election” as well as give the White House to Bush again in 2004. Equally,

“Who would have thought that we could convince so many blue-collar workers that raising taxes primarily on white-collar workers was intrinsically wicked that they and other voters should give [the Republicans] both the House and the Senate?”

Raymond describes the Republican approach to politics as being very simple: “using polls to find – or, better yet, create – the negative issue that turns off the right segment of voters”, to gain the slight edge needed to tip any given election. Wedge issues, in other words. And in America, politics is wedge issues. As for how to achieve this? “Was the tactic dirty? Was it clean? Meaningless. It was victorious.” When it came to the Lewinsky scandal, it’s clear that Raymond believed the Contract with America Republicans (also known as the Southern Strategy, or Gingrich Republicans) went too far: the Lewinsky “stuff was interesting as gossip when it started, but when the guys in the House began calling for Clinton’s impeachment I thought they’d all gone nuts.” He also didn’t see why those in the House would want to have Clinton step down, only to have Gore become president, and therefore the incumbent in 2000 (according to Raymond, in politics, incumbents have a 95% chance of winning – this statistic I think is for House and Senate, but even presidential incumbents have a tendency to win).

How to Rig an Election is also a portrait of a party that self-destructed and, given what we see happening in the political environment in the US at the moment, a party that is still self-destructing. In 2002, Raymond explains, “just about every Republican operative was so dizzy with power”, and their continued successes meant that “it seemed preposterous that anything you did to win an election could be considered a crime.” But, by 2005, things were changing dramatically: “Everywhere you turned so many Republicans were screwing up so outrageously that even the press wasn’t afraid of them anymore.”

Raymond doesn’t have much to say about the Republican Party establishment that is positive or complimentary. He refers to them as “knuckle-draggers”, hypocrites and greedy (Rove is held in particularly low esteem). As for the Republican religiosity, it’s a sham: referring to the “WWJD” bracelets popular among the GOP leadership, the author says,

“I would come to learn that none of the top men or women in the RNC ever asked themselves what Jesus would do until after they got caught doing things he would never have done.”

How To Rig An Election will act as an “I told you so!” text for the many who believe the Republican Party will do anything, say anything, and bribe anyone just to win elections. While the book also highlights instances when Democrats used underhand and devious (dishonest) tactics to tip the electoral scales in their favour, this remains a book primarily targeting the Republican Party.

Honestly and openly written, Raymond’s style is conversational and welcoming, with a knack for interesting turns of phrase, making this book an easy and enjoyable read. Filled with interesting anecdotes, opinion, and insider observation, the book is well worth reading if you have any interest in the American political process. Highly recommended.

Also try: Stephen Marks, Confessions of a Political Hitman (2008); Mike Loew, Thanks for the Memories, George (2009); Sidney Blumenthal, The Curious Death of the Republican Party (2007); Al Franken, The Truth With Jokes (2006); Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote (2005); Andras Szanto, What Orwell Didn’t Know (2007); Robert Shrum, No Excuses (2007)

Review posted from Lima, Peru

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