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The meaning in the 'message'

Dr. Dean has a "populist message." Senator Kerry needs to get his campaign "back on message." General Clark is mounting ads in New Hampshire to "send a message of success."

A year out from Decision 2004, the quadrennial "message" debates have begun. Who has a good one? Which one will resonate? Which one will cut through the clutter and be heard? Opinion pieces and letters to the editor are asking questions like these - and so are folks at diners, shopping malls, and in their living rooms.

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The notion of a "message" has become so ingrained in politics that it is received wisdom - and that wisdom has crossed over to the population at large. Everyone, it seems understands "message."

In the last decade, there has been an explosion in "media literacy." Audiences are sophisticated about things they never used to give a thought to. Woe betide the candidate who lets him- or herself appear tired, or at all disheveled - when production values are lost, the public turns away.

While citizens are technically adept at examining how well a candidate speaks on the stump, they often fail to examine what she or he says and means. Strangely, it is this very sophistication that has blinded citizens to reality. They're too savvy for their own good.

That's a problem. Why? Two reasons:

• It diminishes the importance of the choice a citizen makes. If the citizen is choosing between messages, then that means that whoever has been more technically skilled at campaigning will get the vote. It's really like choosing Coke over Pepsi because someone likes the words "real thing" more than "new generation."

• It turns the public square into simply a machine to generate electoral power. It treats citizens as the means to an end: election. They are not "citizens," they are "voters." And it assumes that what a candidate stands for does not matter; what matters is how he or she talks about it.

People vote for candidates "because they like their message." People complain that Democrats "no longer have a coherent message." People vote - or not - in order to "send a message," as if the ballot box were at Western Union and not the local elementary school.

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Everyone can recall the winning message of 1992. It was the economy, stupid. The winning team held fanatically to that message. This was the technical genius that made the Clinton campaign so successful. But, what principle did that message embody? What did the message that the economy was awful say to citizens who were seeking to make a choice? Did the message let voters know what they might expect in terms of leadership from the candidate whose campaign espoused it?

No. Unpacked, the message of 1992 said: "For many of you, the economy is a nightmare. It's the fault of the present administration. If you vote for me, I will improve the economy and you will get a job."

Campaigns' ability to promote their candidate has far outstripped their ability to deal with the ethical issues involved. They're so skilled at promoting and marketing that they're playing with fire. In the consumer marketplace, this has no worse consequence than the ability to make mediocre movies into blockbusters simply on the strength of the marketing campaign. (The second and third installments of the Matrix franchise, for example.)

But, in the public square of citizenship, marketing and promotion skills have dire results. Almost anyone can be elevated to a position of seeming leadership and, given the right confluence of events, can be placed in power - all on the strength of promotion, regardless of their fundamental fitness for office, skills, abilities, qualifications, or even temperament. Think of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won California's recall election not on the strength of anything he'd done, or of any principles on which he'd built his life or claimed to follow. His success was built on the effectiveness of two messages: "The economy is bad and it is the current administration's fault;" and "Things ought to change." And the citizens of California responded.

One analyst recently said, "As voters wanted, the recall brought change. But change to what? Now come the bigger questions." As the presidential campaigns of 2004 switch into high gear, let us look less at how the campaigns are run, and think more about what they're saying. Let 2004 be a year that we get just a little less smart.

Brad Rourke is a communications and ethics consultant.