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Thursday, July 31, 2003

The Electability Game

In response to a post by Leah over at Eschaton and subsequent discussion of “electability” in the comments thread, a reader named Jennifer Kenney writes something that I think is insightful and worth reiterating.

This is all so ridiculous, to debate electability on the basis of policy positions. Most people - especially most people who are not policy wonks - make decisions with their guts. They like something or don't based on its innate attractiveness, not on a careful weighing of evidence.

If this were not the case, would anyone truly think that Bush was an asset to our national security? Would he have gotten close enough to steal the election? Would the Dems be thinking about running anybody other than Hillary? Would I ever have thought I was "so in love" with that guy who was "just between jobs right now"? No, no, and Whoa Nelly! People aren't such rational creatures.

The question isn't whether Kerry (or anybody else) has the stance on the issues to beat Dean, the question is whether anybody else has the energy and rhetoric to beat him. Most folks aren't aware of him (or that the primary races have even started). When they become aware of him, they'll decide whether or not they like him from their guts, not their heads, and once they make that decision they'll fill in all the logical policy blanks to justify that decision. That's electability.

She’s right. Political junkies and partisans care about issues. Everybody else votes on a gut feeling or tribal identification. The politicians’ job, among other things, is to project an image and an aura that accurately captures who he is and reassures voters that he can do the job. If the politician is astute about the mood and the direction of the country, he will be able to emphasize those personal qualities that people subconsciously believe is needed at that particular time. (Biography and resume count, too. People use them as short hand.)

The post modern nature of the media makes this more important than ever. Narratives are strangely constructed and often left dangling as the herd rushes off in different directions. Truth and reality are presented as relative to which party you belong to --- facts are nothing more than spin points to be debated by the candidate or his “critics.” You can't blame people for relying more and more on their instincts to guide their political choices. It's almost impossible for a busy person to sort out the facts and the truth about any candidate.

As much as it pains me to say it, because I thought he was a good man, Al Gore’s biggest failure as a candidate wasn’t a bad strategy and it wasn’t a lack of passion. It was a stilted and uncomfortable speaking style. It is tremendously unfair, but it is the truth. I can’t tell you how many airheaded Democratic voters I spoke to who complained about his personality. He won anyway, to be sure, but it was in spite of that handicap. Most people voted their pocketbooks and if you recall, back in 2000 this country felt invincible.

Bush, on the other hand, did as well as he did because his family name represented staid, waspy, traditional conservatism at a time when a lot of people had come to believe that the most important part of the President’s job was to project an image of rectitude. (Peace and prosperity tend to make the task of governing look easy.) His faux Texan affectations helped to deliver the south, but his policy positions and grasp of the issues was non-existent and nobody expected him to have them. He was chosen for his brand name appeal.

Interestingly, they have spent the last 3 years re-branding him as their former rival, John McCain -- the straight talking war hero.

I don’t suggest that the Democrats adopt such a cynical approach. But, we are being luddites if we don’t recognize and consciously adapt to the modern political reality. Politics are now inextricably linked to entertainment values as much as civic tradition. Maybe on some level it always has been. We ignore that at our peril.

FYI: On VH1’s top 200 Pop Icons, Bill Clinton comes in at number 18 and John F Kennedy at 32.

The two most popular Democratic presidents of the last 40 years are considered Pop Icons. The coolest people are always Democrats. We can do this.