Michael Gerson: Politicians should understand the power of authenticity
WASHINGTON -- When I worked as a Senate aide in the early 1990s, the state of New York was represented by two figures who could hardly have been more different. Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the Senate’s brilliant, urbane, bow-tied intellectual who wrote books on sociology and international law. His colleague was Republican Al “The Pal” D’Amato, a glad-handing, locally focused machine pol, with a grating accent only a New Yorker could love.
Both men specialized in being vivid versions of themselves: the irascible professor and “Senator Pothole.” And both were rewarded by essentially the same electorate, serving as a lab test in the elasticity of democratic judgments.
The lesson here: There are many ways to succeed in American politics, but most of them involve authenticity. Voters are often not interested in (or even capable of) making decisions based on a carefully sorted list of policy priorities. They often take politicians in the totality of their acts. They develop a composite picture that includes a candidate’s general policy predispositions (left or right), but also his or her public persona (“A least he knows what he believes.” “What a character; I like her.”).
In recent primaries, the anti-incumbent narrative has mostly taken a beating—not a single Senate Republican officeholder is likely to lose a primary this year. But the importance of authenticity has been affirmed. In Mississippi, Thad Cochran embraced his bring-home-the-bacon persona. No other GOP candidate in this cycle, to my knowledge, campaigned on the claim, “I think earmarks have gotten a bad name.” One television ad, funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “Thad Cochran always delivers, just like he did during Katrina.”
I’ll admit that this composite picture is not the noblest in American politics. But it has a certain appeal in Mississippi, where hurricanes happen. The outcome of the Mississippi primary had varied causes that complicate broad judgments. But there is little question that Cochran was wise to embrace an identity he could not escape—what political advisers sometimes call “hanging a lantern” on your problems. The image of “pork king” ended up being a successful contrast to Chris McDaniel’s crude imitation of Ted Cruz.
The outcome of this month’s Republican primary in South Carolina was an even stronger affirmation of the political power of authenticity. Early in this cycle, Sen. Lindsey Graham was reckoned among the most vulnerable of GOP incumbents. He had supported the Wall Street bailout, voted for Obama Supreme Court justices, championed foreign aid, and was (for goodness’ sake) a member of the “Gang of Eight” that pushed immigration reform through the Senate a year ago.
Graham ended up with 56 percent of the vote in his primary for a number of reasons. He got the political fundamentals—fundraising, local presence—resoundingly right. He emphasized his sincerely conservative views on pro-life issues and the Benghazi and Veterans Affairs scandals. But he didn’t back down on immigration, or on his broader defense of political compromise to achieve public goals. The lantern was hung.
“We’ve been a state that looks for the entire package,” Graham argued before the election. “I think I’m gonna win, and I’m gonna win being me.”
Which he did.
Does this lesson in the importance of the “entire package” have implications for the 2016 presidential race? The implicit front-runners—Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—are sometimes lumped together as candidates of the past, essentially the incumbents in the race. But if authenticity can trump incumbency, there is currently some distance between the two establishment options.
Clinton’s pre-campaign book launch was rendered sputtering by an authenticity issue. There has always been a contrast between Clinton’s 2008 primary persona—the candidate of blue-collar regulars and precinct walkers—and her background and political history. Hillary and Bill Clinton’s traditional closeness to Wall Street is unappealing to portions of the Democratic Party that would prefer to “occupy” that real estate. And the internal tensions of Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley-Yale populism have been on full display in comments—“dead broke,” not “truly well-off”—that echo Mitt Romney’s conception of personal wealth.
Bush, in contrast, may suffer from an excess of authenticity. Many Republicans judge his continued support for comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core educational standards as disqualifying. But Bush’s entire package matches conservative convictions—on tax policy, fiscal restraint and life issues—with a personal core that seems formed and fixed.
Clinton wrestles with the authenticity issue. Bush may succeed by being a vivid version of himself.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.