Former presidential adviser David Gergen rues
campaign 'puffery,' distortions
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
WALNUT CREEK -- David Gergen, onetime adviser to presidents and now a CNN political analyst, should take up baseball. On Oct. 24, the day of World Series Game 1, Gergen delivered a home-run talk before a nearly-full Lesher Center for the Arts crowd in Walnut Creek as part of the "Newsmakers: Lesher Speaker Series" event.
Teaming up with local nonprofit Youth Homes, Inc., an organization providing residential and aftercare treatment programs to abused and traumatized foster children, Gergen added swing to his "look to today's youth for hope" message.
Calling Ronald Reagan "the best leader" among the presidents he advised and Bill Clinton "the last effective president at getting things done," Gergen said the "secret sauce" of turning the country around lies in today's young people.
"Kids born at the end of the 20th century, they want to change things," he said. "They're coming back from Iran and Afghanistan and asking, 'What can I do for America?' "
But he was in Walnut Creek, in large measure, to talk politics during a highly charged election season.
In a preshow interview, Gergen said voters have come to expect "puffery" from presidential candidates, and that "flagrant distortions" have arrived courtesy of both sides of the 2012 campaign.
"It's regrettable, but there's a greater danger, something that can sink a candidate and plague a presidency: Making a promise," Gergen said, referring to a "peace is at hand" declaration that turned out to be far from the truth in the 1970s and tax or budget promises throughout campaign history.
Reform would require a Constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United and Buckley vs. Valeo Supreme Court decisions regarding campaign finances, he insisted.
Partisan battles, he suggested, have no vehicle for erasure and will face either Obama or Romney in the next presidential term.
"Each man will have to govern with a divided government. Success will depend on the political capacity and magnanimity of the winner," he said. "The atmosphere will be better for Obama, because Republicans wanting him out will no longer have that goal and no Republican wants to be responsible for sending the country in to a second recession."
In his public comments, Gergen swiftly delivered an ominous statement.
"I can't remember a time when the problems facing our country were bigger and the candidates less able to solve them," he warned.
For a man who has advised four presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton) during tumultuous times that included skirmishes with Communist countries, terrorists, Wall Street and a tidal wave of partisan stalemating, Gergen's dire outlook left a palpable dark cloud that even his impressive gift for telling a good joke did not entirely lift.
Phase one of the campaign, Gergen suggested, ended when October 2011 polls showed Obama as the favorite. Phase two, a yearlong lopsided period during which Obama's well-run campaign and his incumbent position dominated the race, came to a screeching halt on Oct. 3.
"After the Democratic convention, it looked like Obama was going to bust it open," Gergen said, "and then that open gate clanged shut. Romney came out supercharging in that first debate. Obama was a candidate we'd never seen before."
Gergen said the White House can be a "bubble" whose parameters narrowly define a sitting president. Ranging from "He's the best president ever!" to "No, he's merely wonderful," the sugary feedback leads to complacency. Despite the success of the seven out of 10 presidents who have asked to be re-elected and won -- the three who lost had to dispose of opponents from within their own party during the primaries -- Gergen said the Obama campaign was suddenly engaged in a different "horse race."
The second two debates stopped a potential landslide, but also earned Romney points for presenting himself as "an acceptable candidate," Gergen said.
Still, he predicted Obama will win, boldly asserting the split would be 53 (Obama) to 47 (Romney).
Three reasons -- each with complex underlying elements -- were easily summarized in Gergen's simple explanation of why Obama has a "bigger theater to play on."
"The country is changing," Gergen said. "This is the last election where a Republican can hope to win on the white vote. They have to get off this anti-immigration position. Republicans have to convince people (their) party is not going to be a bunch of white guys telling women what to do."
After the election, Gergen said whoever wins will face an immediate crisis -- a "fiscal cliff" he predicts will mean higher taxes and a confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons that could "rip apart the president and keep him from his job of getting the economy unlocked."