May 20, 2019
he great virtue of Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump: A Political Odyssey, Arnold Steinberg’s long but worthwhile memoir, is its well-informed angst about the shortcomings of conservative politics. Steinberg has practiced such politics skillfully for half a century. A true believer in small government and unlegislated social conservatism, he knows how to win—and when and why winning isn’t possible. No conservative candidate should hire a consultant who hasn’t sat through a week of seminars with Steinberg. Unfortunately, today’s Republican or conservative politics is a mess, partly because people like Steinberg are scarce in its major roles.
How did this mess develop? One major theme in Whiplash! is the ongoing tactical stupidity of conservatives and Republicans. Another is many Republican elected officials’ failure to understand, let alone hold to, their stated principles. Yet another is the selfishness and flakiness that have always been, it seems, endemic among leaders of the modern American Right.
Steinberg also documents the Left’s virulence, especially in California, where he has spent most of his career. He repeatedly illustrates the Democrats’, and their special-interest allies’, shameless aggression in what is essentially a one-party state. Steinberg fears the nation as a whole is trending in the same basic direction as California. As he writes in his afterword, given the parallels between politics in his early activist years and politics today, “[with] a younger generation fighting the same battles, I feel as if I’ve been whiplashed by a time warp.”
Refreshingly, he does not emphasize conservative progress in the “battle of ideas” or any other conflict. Although he recounts numerous inspiring wins—such as James Buckley’s 1970 election to the U.S. Senate as the Conservative Party candidate, and, in 1996, passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative outlawing reverse discrimination by the state—he also draws some grim conclusions. Steinberg focuses much of his ire on the government, but the American people don’t escape blame. “Liberty is sound public policy,” Steinberg notes. “But liberty remains out of fashion in The Culture.” “American democracy,” he later writes, “has become a cult dependent on ignorance and confusion.” “Gender and race,” he warns on the book’s last page, “ethnic identity and victimization, multiculturalism and diversity—this madness pervades society.” Right-of-center readers probably won’t be infused with optimism while enjoying this memoir. But they might feel better equipped to continue their resistance to the Left. Anger can breed clarity. And one gets the impression that Steinberg remains a happy warrior.
Arnie Steinberg grew up a long time ago, in a land far, far away: Southern California, in the decade preceding Ronald Reagan’s triumphant gubernatorial election. He knew some of the people who made that happen; he later knew others who were part of the Reagan presidential campaigns and presidency. His high-level positions in “movement” conservative groups, and his leadership in many successful uphill campaigns, make credible his pronouncements on the many weaknesses of conservative politics, politicians, and officeholders.
The son of midcentury Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles, Steinberg became prominent in Young Americans for Freedom by the end of the 1960s. Seeing that “we were losing the culture wars—the big picture that surely dwarfed any one election,” he concluded: “politics was only a holding action.” Steinberg caught the campaign bug, yet retained his more philosophical perspective on public life. (One late chapter in Whiplash is titled, simply, “Thugs”; the next, containing more philosophical reflections, is called “Tocqueville.”) Reflecting on this duality, Steinberg writes:
I preferred working on issues and ideas. But over ensuing decades, I would recommend or hire hundreds in campaigns. As in Hollywood, the job seeker should not say: “I’ll do anything.” Be able to do something. Just as many film school graduates claim to be “directors,” young conservative “political scientists” like to be “strategists.” A good screenwriter should know that every story is a rewrite of something in the Bible. All political campaigns are the same, they are just different. If you can’t resolve that seeming paradox, you don’t get it. It is said that wisdom is an accumulation of mistakes. In politics, I paid my dues quickly, but I did pay them.
In the 1980s, Steinberg set up his own polling firm. For more than 30 years he advised hundreds of campaigns on “strategy”—including judgments on “how to approach scripting for a TV or radio spot, what to write in direct mail.” Steinberg’s appetite for nuts-and-bolts work was an irreplaceable asset. “I could have confidence in my numbers,” he explains,
because I was involved in every step. Fundamentally, I disagreed with the random digit sampling methodology, at least the way it was used in California, so I created and refined a procedure that used the voter file [the public registry of voters—their addresses, dates of birth, party registration, and which elections they voted in] as a polling database. The way in which I sampled delivered results with unparalleled accuracy; years later, many critics of my sampling methodology have adopted it.
His screens for “likely voters,” for example, didn’t depend on often-inaccurate self-reporting.
Steinberg indicts Republican consultants for failing to “see their work as including a fiduciary role. They become consumed with convincing someone, especially [if] wealthy, to run for office. Those involved in commissionable media billings may want to justify more advertising, even if the advertising is ineffective.” Another major problem is the business class’s perennial timidity and opportunism. Among the many roots of California’s fiscal conundrum is 1988’s Proposition 98, which requires permanent increases in education spending even when revenue is tight. “My survey,” Steinberg laments,
showed that Proposition 98 could be defeated, once its implications were explained. But the gutless leaders of the business community did not want to antagonize the teachers’ unions. Moreover, since the short-term self-interest of business was not immediately threatened, the business interests refused to oppose Proposition 98, which passed. [Their] shortsighted refusal…has probably cost the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars of added spending without reforms.
Social conservatives suffer from a different problem: they’re tone-deaf. Take gun control: “Conservatives have not communicated effectively on this issue because they have promoted a gun culture rather than making a right to own a gun a civil right. We hear expressions like ‘pro-gun’—an archaic term that plays to the base but appears to glorify guns.” Stem cells are another example. The issue of stem-cell research “has been a disaster for Republicans,” since many voters seem to think Republicans oppose medical research that would cure horrible diseases. But most are in fact open to such research; appearing to reject it is a self-inflicted wound. Prop. 71—the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, passed in 2004—was “ridiculous” in Steinberg’s view, authorizing $3 billion in public dollars for work better left to the private sector. But in fighting the measure, conservatives should have focused on “attacking crony capitalism, not waging a battle on stem-cell research.”
Crony capitalism, public-private partnerships, eminent domain abuse: all are objects of Steinberg’s scorn. Another is public education, or what he calls “government schools.” There’s also the militarization of law enforcement, along with prosecutorial abuse and over-sentencing. On all of these issues, Steinberg denounces Republican officeholders, as a whole, for political cowardice, slogan-driven thinking, and a disconnect from people’s real-life concerns. Worst of all: “Many Republican politicians trade principle to enhance political war chests.”
Laments, worries, and often-fascinating anecdotes dominate Whiplash!; programmatic agendas and solutions are mostly absent. But this is a memoir. Steinberg the happy warrior won many tough campaigns, and never gave up after losing. As an early history of the Conservative Party said in its unforgettable title: Actions Speak Louder.