“How do we sell leadership?”
Why is it that real life can't be a well-scripted as a West Wing episode? I selected the clip above for a reason, and not just because the scenes with Leo and Jed are some of my favorites over the course of the entire run of the series. Lately, I have been combing through position papers and issue statements and tactical maneuverings…the stuff of modern politics…and wondering just exactly what, if anything, any of the Presidential candidates on either side of the aisle really and truly stand FOR?
Honestly, how does one break through all the layers of public projection and preening and political posturing for public consumption to get to the real, unnuanced, unvarnished core? Do we really want to do so — or does this "best of all possible worlds" hope for a dream candidate to sweep me off my feet romantic notion of the "perfect candidate" make it next to impossible for the Democrats to field anyone who can win the general election? How can you know?
I am certainly with Leo on this, though: I desperately want a candidate for whom I can be completely happy to pull my voting lever. The "hold your nose and vote" level of candidacy does not work for me, and I have written in a name more than once in my voting lifetime for that reason.
What got me thinking about all of this today was a profile of Barack Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, in the NYTimes Magazine, a news article primarily about the Edwards campaign, and all of the fundraising news of the last couple of days.
We are at a political crossroads of a sort at the moment: who are we as a nation; what is our commitment to our fundamental, core principles; and which of these do we hold as important going forward into America's future? And at the center of this is a yearning, at least for me: for a leader, a real one. One who looks not just to the expedient now in terms of what they think I want to hear, but what I and generations to come will need much, much further down the road. One who looks to the least of these, and not just the monied cronies and what they want for all that campaign cash (nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever free in politics).
And, for the love of all that is holy, I want a candidate with a spine. Someone who will stand up for what is right, but who will also have the courage and the character to listen — really listen — to criticism, to opposing opinions, and to outside counsel from real people and not just Beltway Bubble types. Because life goes on outside the Beltway all the time, and we should never, ever let them forget that.
But it was this from the Edwards article that really grabbed at me and wouldn't let go:
A candidate with a personal narrative tends to have more appeal than one with a vast, though bloodless, collection of position papers, said Paul E. Begala, part of the team of advisers who turned Bill Clinton from a policy wonk into "the man from Hope." Mr. Begala, now a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, added that "one of the enduring problems of the Democrats" in the last two elections was "leading from the head and not the heart."
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards’s situation, Mr. Begala said, will animate the health care proposal that was already central to Mr. Edwards's candidacy and widely praised for its specificity. That proposal, Mr. Begala added, was driven in part by Mrs. Edwards's original diagnosis and treatment, and says to 2008 voters that his focus on health care is as personal as it gets.
All of these political consultants cited the current yearning among American voters for authenticity and character in a candidate and agreed that Mr. Edwards, without exploiting his family situation, has a singular opportunity in a crowded field.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards understand the power of narrative from his days as a plaintiffs' lawyer who could move a jury to award an enormous judgment with the tale of a child maimed because of a defective $1 widget. That human connection was missing from the Kerry/Edwards campaign in 2004, Mrs. Edwards said at the Cleveland luncheon when one voter asked how the Democratic ticket managed to lose Ohio and thus the election.
She said every lost job in the state and every unsecured chemical plant should have been translated into a story about a real person unable to feed a family, pay for health insurance or feel safe in a world besieged by terrorists. "Our storytelling," she said, "needs to improve." (emphasis mine)
Amen. As I read through the article on the fellow who is a key advisor to Obama, I was at times both intrigued and appalled — because it was a sort of cross-section between Hollywood casting and narration, and tugging at emotions that for far too long have been ignored by the simpletons that we call Democratic operatives these days. And yet, there were so many shades of Rove that it started to give me the willies. But how do you defeat something and someone like Rove and his machine without handing them a taste or two of their own medicine? Can it — or should — be done? I just don't know.
But these are the questions we ought to be asking ourselves now. As we start to look at the men and women who may be askng us to trust them with the Presidency. And what they ought to be asking themselves.
Two more West Wing clips and then I'll open the floor. This first one is one of my favorite moments, talking about the desperate need for spine among Democratic politicians and strategists. Lordy, I must say something like this at least twice a week, if not more (but the scripting on the West Wing is better). The second is an introduction to the obsessive nature of "the math."
I would love to have a discussion this morning about all of this, because I really need to get some perspective from a few more thoughtful folks on this. And this is just the place to do that.