Patrick Caddell : Brown’s Mentor in the Art of Trolling for Frustrated Voters

<i> Steve Proffitt is a contributing reporter to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He interviewed Patrick Caddell at a Brentwood restaurant</i>

At 21, he was the whiz-kid poll taker for George McGovern, an intense Harvard grad who went on to become an architect of Jimmy Carter’s come-from-nowhere victory in 1976. A pollster and strategist in five presidential campaigns, he became as well-known in Washington for his flamboyance and hair-trigger temper as for his skill at reading the political tea leaves.

These days, 41-year-old Patrick Caddell lives in self-exile from the nation’s capital. He works the phones from a lounge chair beside the pool at his Brentwood home. Almost every day, one of the many calls he takes comes from his friend and presidential candidate, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

Caddell says he retired from professional politics in 1986, when he left Washington--a town he now says is “on the cutting edge of irrelevancy”--to take a job teaching political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Though his current role in the Brown campaign is unofficial, he has profoundly shaped the former governor’s election strategy. When Jerry Brown decries politicians’ addiction to money, or talks of the need to “take back our government,” he is playing a tune Caddell composed. The pollster wrote much of the speech Brown delivered last October when announcing his candidacy in Philadelphia, and Caddell is credited with helping Brown identify many of the themes he’s using to appeal to alienated, disaffected voters.


No one, it seems, is more alienated and disaffected than Caddell. He now finds the system he once so skillfully manipulated to be “corrupt to the core,” and he visibly bristles when discussing the “political, economic and media elite.” Caddell vents his spleen on a weekly political talk show aired on Century Cable, and says he is developing several film and television projects. As if to underline his transition to California, he drives a 1966 Mustang convertible and dresses in a casual style that might be considered slovenly in the nation’s capital.

But Caddell’s passion is still politics at the highest level. In addition to advising Brown, Caddell also reportedly prepared a memo for Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, advising him on a strategy for developing a successful third-party presidential challenge. Over a bowl of Mongolian black-bean soup, Caddell seemed to revel in the role of insurgent, delivering his theories and pronouncements in the rapid fire, impatient style of a man who has plenty of ideas and too little time.

Question: What’s going on in the country? There’s obviously a tremendous amount of frustration with politics and politicians. What do you sense is happening in the minds of the electorate?

Answer: Politics is disconnected from the country. We were already seeing signs of protest in 1990--David Duke, Dianne Feinstein, Clayton Williams (of Texas) and Bernie Sanders (of Vermont) were all supping out of the same pot. And it wasn’t about ideology. For the last 25 years, the politicians in this country have presided over a decline, and it is impossible for them to acknowledge it. Because to change, to turn the country toward what has to be done, they would first have to tell the truth. And to do that would be to risk their own power, because, in a democracy, that means standing up and saying, “We have failed.” And the track record of people who do that is not very good. So the Democratic Party lives a lie, the Washington Establishment lives a lie: “Nothing’s really wrong, don’t worry about the $400-million deficit, just elect us.”

Q: This feeling of anti-incumbency has been building for a good while. Do you sense that it’s finally coming to a head?

A: There are three things that have brought us to what I think is a firestorm. First, an alienated public. Alienation is something I’ve been dealing with politically since the beginning of my career. But this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. In the 1960s, when you asked, “Do your leaders do what’s best for you and not for special interests?” people overwhelmingly agreed--60% or 70% of them. Now it’s totally reversed. People today simply believe the political and economic system is stacked against them.


The second thing is a sense of decline. This are people saying that America is not No. 1 anymore. Americans will rage against that idea, because all America is built on the notion that things will get better. Moving across that psychological divide is a major thing.

Q: So are you saying that you accept the notion that things won’t get better, that we are, in fact, in decline?

A: Absolutely! Get somebody up here to argue with me that, as individuals and as a society, we are better off now than we were in 1968. You don’t have to convince the American people of that--they now know it. Now the third thing, which I don’t think anyone has articulated yet, is that what we pass on should be greater than what we got. We leave our children a better America, and more opportunity. You kill that idea and you will kill this country. And that’s exactly what’s happening! That’s the overwhelming moral issue. When I look at the political leadership, the economic elite that has ripped off the country, the press that has been its propaganda mouthpiece, I tell you this: In their collective and individual pursuit of power, they have committed acts that are worse than treason. And that’s what the American people feel now. That is the third great force that is at work here, and we have not even seen the full fury of that yet.

Q: Is it your role to offer a prescription?

A: No. I want to be like Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.” I want to be the person who pulls back the curtain and shows them that there is no wizard, just an old man with a microphone. My job is to help people connect, and to see that they are not alone. I left politics, and I said I would never be in a venture where I couldn’t speak with my own voice. I don’t speak for Jerry Brown and he doesn’t speak for me.

Q: Still, are there mechanical things that can be done? For instance, term limits. Does that make any sense to you?

A: Yes. But it’s such a minor thing. In a functioning democracy, I think term limits are wrong. But at the moment, I think you need a hatchet. I believe that America faces a crisis that only rivals the Civil War and the Revolution which bore it. It’s not about term limits or campaign-financing reform, it’s about getting people in power. Tom Foley (the Speaker of the House) is not going to reform himself.

Q: Do you get rid of the legislature, do you get rid of the congressional staffs? Do you recreate the bureaucracy, do you move the government to Lincoln, Neb.?

A: I don’t know. First of all, nobody has a single answer. Maybe you should break up the government. You’ve got to cut the staffs down; they are out of control. But you don’t have to totally change the system. There’s nothing wrong with the Constitution. When I say this country needs a revolution, it needs a revolution of restoration. We must first get an agenda of consensus in this country--that the country is in crisis and that we are willing to come together to deal with it. It’s not about arguing if we like this health-care plan or that one. It’s about taking the big steps to save the country. That’s what the issue is, a commitment to change, to the restoration of American greatness. It’s that simple.

Q: If the system is corrupt, can’t one conclude that the political parties are corrupt as well?

A: Yes, and the Democratic corruption is much worse than the Republican corruption. I say that as a Democrat. My party is standing at the verge of following the Whigs into history, of disappearing overnight if they keep this up. The Republicans really do believe in what they say. When they say “Help the rich,” these people act in obedience to their principles. When people in my party do it, they do so in absolute treason of their principles. I’ve realized that my friends are more corrupt than my enemies . . . .

Q: What’s your relationship with Ross Perot? Do you meet with him, do you speak with him regularly?

A: I have had one meeting with Ross Perot, several months ago, and we talked and I encouraged him. Other than that I have nothing to say about my relationship with Ross Perot.

Q: Perot is apparently getting thousands of phone calls a day offering support. How come the public, which presumably knows next to nothing about Perot’s politics, is seemingly so eager to get behind him?

A: I don’t know if this is going to be real; he has a tough course ahead of him. But he is a genuine folk hero. When he goes on TV and talks, people listen. He’s said he will only run if his supporters pave the way for him, if they do the work. Instead of selling out to the Democrats or the Republicans, he says to the people, “I’ll sell out to you.” His message is the reverse of Jerry Brown’s. Jerry’s was, “If I build it, they will come.” Perot’s is, “If you build it, I will come.” His politics are much more complex than they seemed in the beginning. The man is pro-choice, pro-gun control. He’s a very eclectic guy.

Q: Tell me about Jerry Brown. How deep do you think his appeal can be?

A: I don’t know yet. He’s still growing, and they’re still responding. He has a transition to make from simply being the vehicle for discontent, to where people see him as an acceptable leader. You know, in all my life in politics, I am used to dealing with people who are basically finished men. Grown. One thing that struck me about Jerry Brown, in the last year or so, is that the guy is still growing. Can he pass the test of being a real leader in people’s minds? If so, he has many advantages that Ross Perot will never have. He can speak with knowledge about the government. He’s run it.

Q: How optimistic are you about Brown’s chances of capturing the nomination?

A: Every day Jerry Brown is raising $80,000 to $100,000 on his 800 number. He has gone from being a joke to being able to raise $100,000 every day, from people contributing less than $100! Man, I want to tell you, it’s out there, the people are ready. As far as I am concerned, the campaign is just beginning. What happens if Brown sweeps his way through the primaries? He’s going to go to the convention and tell the delegates that he is running on a platform that indicts them as personally corrupt. That’s going to be very tough for those folks to swallow.

This is going to be as exciting as 1968 was politically. We don’t know now how it’s going to shape up. But there are great forces there, and great moments of possibility.

I remember hearing the Washington insiders view of Jerry Brown: “Great message, wrong messenger.” And I would bristle. If your problem is the messenger, if you agree with his analysis of the problems with the political system, then I must ask, “How come his is the only voice?” The answer is there is not another voice, because they are not allowed in. We have a self-perpetuating class of people who have designed the system to keep anyone who questions it on the outside. It’s a system designed to take democracy away from the people. So when Jerry Brown raises the banner of taking back the country, they must kill this message. It’s a message of death for all of them. It is Cromwell, “Out, you are not a Parliament.”

Q: Jerry Brown is running a campaign that has similarities to the race you helped run for Jimmy Carter. Carter also ran as an outsider and a reformer. Can you make a comparison between the two campaigns?

A: It’s gotten much worse. With Carter, we were battling with muskets. Now it’s thermonuclear war. In 1976, the (Democratic) party was still a good party. It had not become what it is today.

Q: If the system is indeed failing, can this leadership recharge the engine, get the growth back? Or do we just have to face the reality of decline?

A: This country cannot survive if the reality is that we continue to go downhill economically. That is not necessary. There’s no reason for it. We can get that engine moving. Jerry Brown’s idea about the flat tax is an idea about getting that machinery going. When he announced it, I didn’t know anything about it. I nearly fell on the floor. But I’ve gotten much more enthusiastic the more I look at it. The principle of it is to get something that’s fair. Even the New York Times said it’s the first interesting idea this year.

Q: Do you have any prediction for Tuesday’s primary in New York.

A: Yes I do, but I’m not going to share it with you, because I don’t believe in jinxing myself. Right this very minute, as I talk to you, I think Jerry Brown--I don’t even want to say this--but it could be a big moment. Let me say this. On Tuesday night, there is the possibility that American politics could be shaken to its foundations in a way that has not happened in our lifetime.