Two of my passions are gourmet food and politics. When I’m not walking door-to-door for a candidate, I am in front of a stove, near a wine bin or doing something otherwise epicurean. So an event I recently attended was a real McFlurry, a seemingly contradictory juxtaposition that comes out wonderfully by the time you’re finished.I was invited to a campaign fundraiser with a theme of “Cooking with the Candidate” during which a five-course meal was prepared by a master chef, while the candidate, appropriately named Dave Eggers, milled about, wine glass in hand, talking to what I consider the perfect voter, one whose mouth is so filled (in this case with braised lamb) that he can’t ask any questions. It was Top Chef meets The West Wing. Guests were even given toques to wear.
Absorbing all of this, seeing how far this campaign had to go to pull of a successful event, it struck me that political fundraising is entering new territory now that the economy has crashed. No political consultant has ever tried to raise money for a candidate in this kind of environment.
If people robbed banks because that was where the money was, where do they go now? From whom do professional fundraisers — less criminal, but often as ambitious as bank robbers – turn to for hefty donations? Certainly not investment bankers. They’re too busy filling out unemployment applications. What about Realtors? No, many of them have been earning 6 percent of not much for more than a year. Certainly developers still have some money to dole out. One word rules a lot of them out: foreclosure.
Sure, there are some doctors and lawyers out there who can still cut a $500 check to a local candidate, but that can get you only so far. It is so bad out there that a professional political fundraiser just told me that two of the traditionally largest donors to his local Republican party are they themselves 30 days away from Chapter 11. Good luck cashing their checks.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan makes the argument that we are about to enter a new era of reading, that with less money, inexpensive pleasures such as reading will displace expensive diversions such as PlayStations and flat-screen televisions.
Take Noonan’s prediction a step further and apply her thinking to the changes that will impact political campaigns. Fewer TV commercials and more town hall meetings. Less direct mail, with its ever-increasing postage costs, and more door-knocking. Call it the return of retail politics. Except, like retail itself, it’s moving online.
At least, that’s where the technology is heading. Facebook is nothing if not a town center. Blogs, Twitter, YouTube — they are all free, and they are the medium by which campaigns will be won.
That’s why there was something nostalgic about the campaign event I attended. At $50 a plate, this was a bargain for all involved. The candidate was able to leisurely interact with his supporters, offering real face-time with potential voters. He wasn’t Twittering — in fewer than 140 characters — his policy proposals. And the voters were able to get a real sense of the candidate, more than what you can glean by adding him as a friend on MySpace.
This may seem like a stretch, but good politics is a lot like good eating, and maybe that’s why they are my twin passions. Just as you cannot get a feel for a restaurant by making your reservation online via OpenTable, you can’t get the measure of a candidate by reading his Web site. Both actions are just starting points.
You can’t know how something tastes by downloading a recipe, nor will you know how a politician thinks by downloading his speeches. You have to taste politics, just as you have to taste good food.