Some people will tell you, with a solemnity they think marks them as deep thinkers, that they always vote for the man, not the party in presidential elections. That is, they choose the best candidate, they say, not the best platform. How they know someone is the "best" may not be immediately clear. He may be the smoothest, most persuasive talker in the lineup--or may be the best-looking and quickest with the sound bites, or make the best promises, or have the best slogans. Perhaps the "best" man is simply the kind of man you'd like to have dinner with.

In other words, if he is a persuasive Hollywood or television actor, you may decide that he'd make a great president, as some voters probably decided about Ronald Reagan. Or if he can banter with Jay Leno or Larry King or appeals most strongly to your biases and prejudices or your subconscious male ideal.

The problem is: It's very difficult in this era of carefully packaged television to know what a presidential candidate is really like. The ad men manufacture and market the candidates, not the politicians who worked in the old smoke-filled rooms and gave us Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. The ad men merchandise the candidate the way they would soap or golf clubs. Those who delude themselves into thinking they can tear through the fancy wrapping paper in which the candidate is arrayed are engaged in massive self-deception. Television packaging has also notably weakened both major political parties, although party preference is still a strong predictor of how people will vote.

The decline of party loyalty has put Americans at the mercy of the packagers, the merchandisers, the pollsters, the focus group gurus. We were a lot better off in the old days when we knew where we stood politically and could count on the party to provide candidates who stood where we were, no matter how inarticulate they might have been or how little like a screen idol they may have looked.

In this era of weakened party loyalty, both presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, have concentrated their efforts on wooing the "independents," the "undecideds"--those who believe they are deep thinkers casting their votes for "the best man" with the best ideas, but who are actually political naïfs for whose souls the media mavens are struggling. Those "independent" babes in the woods haven't caught on that ideas no longer matter in the world of politics; only images matter. It's scary that those whose political sophistication never got past high school social studies class and who have no idea where their social and economic interests lie are going to choose the next president on the basis of how effectively the image-mongers manipulate them.

In fact, the two major parties still represent significantly different political philosophies. The Democrats are more likely to sympathize with the poor and the middle class. The Republicans are the party of the affluent. The differences in their respective tax plans are evidence of that. If you happen to be affluent or if your economic theories say that the "trickle-down" approach to poverty and income inequality is the main way to deal with social problems, then you should vote for the Grand Old Party. If you're suspicious of that approach, so dedicated to the economic health of big business and the rich, then you should vote Democratic.

It is a tribute to the merchandising skills of the Republicans that they have been able to persuade many white working-class and middle-class males, whose economic interests clearly lie with the Democrats, that Republican candidates are the "best" men (and women) for them. Why else would they vote for representatives of a party that doesn't care whether they lose their jobs, their medical insurance, or their old-age security? Packaging is obviously the answer.

One of the few groups that has been able to see through the gaudy wrapping paper is Catholics, who still pretty much vote the Democratic ticket en masse, just as their parents and grandparents did. While some of us Catholics have defected from our traditional Democratic Party loyalty, ours is a communal church, and we cherish communal values.

Most of us are able to see through the manipulations of Republican image-mongers who want us to believe that some Republican candidate or other is the "best man." That's why Al Gore is running 15 percentage points ahead of George W. Bush among Catholics. This "religion gap" is of the same magnitude as the gender gap that everyone talks about. Women and Catholics tilt toward Gore, while men and Protestant evangelicals tilt toward Bush.

The Republican image-makers subtly appeal to the subconscious fears of this white, male, generally evangelical group. Such men, be they yuppie technocrats or blue-collar hard-hats, value their masculinity. They want nothing to do with a Democratic Party that the Republicans persistently portray as favoring women, minorities, gays, and immigrants over native-born white males.

These guys think they are tough-minded, strong-willed independents, untrammeled by party loyalty. In fact, they have been taken in by the manipulators, the slogan-mongers, the image-fabricators, and the whole crowd of slick consultants who dominate American politics--the kind of people that these red-blooded, true-blue American males would despise if they ever met them.

So I say again: Follow the lead of us Catholics. Don't vote for the man. That's voting for what the image-makers have concocted. Vote for the party. It's the entity that will protect your interests.

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