Monday, August 27, 2007

Democrats' Fatal Flaw?

If a new book, “The Political Brain,” is right, the Democrats should nominate Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton.

But like most big “ifs,” it’s not as simple as that. Drew Westen’s thesis that emotions rather than rationality govern voters’ choices is true up to a point, but based on half a century of experience, far from the whole story.

After two Bush elections, it’s tempting to conclude that the way to win is to go for the gut and, looking even further back, explain a Democratic parade of losers—Humphrey, Mondale, Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry--as too cerebral in the face of pit-of-the-stomach Republican attacks like the Willie Horton and Swift Boat ads.

But appealing to voters’ brains or hearts has never been an either-or, as John F. Kennedy showed in 1960. He did both and won. But after that, even those Democrats who made it--Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter--did so less on “charisma” than circumstance (JFK’s assassination, Nixon’s disgrace) until Bill Clinton, who put convention-goers to sleep with his speech in 1988 made an about-face four years later and took advantage of Bush I’s lack of “the vision thing.”

What both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have to recognize is that a Presidential campaign is not a job interview/intelligence test. Voters want to know about issues but now, more than ever, they are judging character: Who are you? What do you really believe? What will you do under pressure?

Last year Obama vaulted onto the scene based on a response to his freshness and candor but, in the heat of competitive campaigning, has fallen into quibbling over he-said, she said. Clinton has opened a lead in the polls with a sure-handed, mistake-free approach to leverage her claims of superior experience.

But if either of them is to make it all the way against a Giuliani or Fred Thompson, who will keep it simple and emotional, they will have to recognize that you can’t beat demagoguery with reason alone.

After George Bush, voters will be receptive to a President with brains. But even more than that, they will be looking for someone they can trust, like and admire. It’s been a long time.

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