They’ve Got Issues

When I’ve worked on political campaigns in past lives, this was the stage when candidates were huddled with earnest armies of propeller-headed wonks, doing their homework on a dizzying array of issues.

What are agricultural loan deficiency payments, and am I for or against them? Where exactly is Hertsogovenia and why should we care about it? Why can’t there be a middle ground on abortion? What are the various constituencies’ hot buttons on the issue of forest fragmentation?

Judy Dutcher, among many other former candidates, can tell you that this cramming is time well spent, especially early in the season when you have more time, and when obscure issue-oriented interest groups and activists hold sway in caucuses and fundraisng.

Thoroughly knowing your policy stuff is most definitely a necessary condition for getting elected. But it’s not a sufficient condition. In addition to working on THE issues, candidates need to work just as hard on THEIR issues. That is, they need to mitigate their perceived personality problems.

The voters who are still undecided late in the general election don’t typically take a detailed inventory of policy positions to make their selection. Rather they choose the PERSON they feel good about, or, more accurately, less bad about. Who do/don’t I trust? Who would/wouldn’t I want to have a cup of coffee with? Who will/won’t embarrass Minnesota? Who is/isn’t in touch with my values and struggles?

Do the current crop of Senate candidates have issues? Darn right they do. And they have nothing to do the interest group issue questionnaires they are filling out.

One of them has to avoid being perceived as Senator Sycophant, the slick, spineless lapdog of the fat cats who will do whatever it takes to advance himself, even when it means cheerleading for an ill-connceived, incompetently run war.

One of them has to figure out a way to avoid being perceived as Senator Snake, a snarling shyster too wealthy to understand most people’s struggles, and too severe to warm up to.

One of them has to figure out a way to avoid being perceived as Senator Sophmoric, a dorky smart-ass carpetbagger class clown with a long history of employing the type of naughty name-calling that might give us all another bad spell of Jesse PTSD.

And as they deal with these issues, Senators Sycophant, Snake and Sophmoric will all have to avoid political consultants over-programming them, and using cookie-cutter ads to water down their humanity and legitimate personality assets.

Most of the people who work on campaigns are into THE issues, so this focus on personality and humanity doesn’t come naturally. But candidates ignore THEIR issues at their own peril.

– Loveland

3 thoughts on “They’ve Got Issues

  1. bbenidt says:

    Excellent view of this, Joe. So, how does Al Franken, for example, work on his personality without becoming Mitt Romney, the Massachurian Candidate? Without becoming a Frankenstein amalgam of advisors’ suggestions? How does a candidate stay real while, say, toning down the smartass quotient? What’s the advice to Franken — Al, only say off-the-cuff smartass stuff when the audience’s average age is below 50? Only on subjects like taxes and the environment but never about the war or homeland security? At what point are the advisors castrating the candidate?

    My approach, the few times I’ve worked with politicians, is to push them and push them to get closer to the things they care most deeply about and then to stand aside and not try to tailor what comes forth from that place. It’s getting them to the place where they’re bringing forth who they are and what they most deeply believe.

    Is that naive? I heard Franken talking about how government programs helped his wife’s family become self-sufficient, and that’s what I remember out of his whole speech. He cared about that part. I’m sure he made smartass comments around that point too, but what he believes in came through so clearly that the smartass was honest expression, not distraction.

    If advisors get Franken — or any candidate — to think too much about which part of the personality to allow out in public, the candidate will be distanced from all parts of him or herself, including that core from which the good stuff, the real stuff, flows.

    This is a tough balancing act. Maybe that’s why McCain 8 years ago was appealing and McCain today is flat — he wasn’t being measured last time and is measuring his political coffin today.

  2. bbenidt says:

    Check out “Let Al be Al”, Loveland’s take from March on this issue of being who you are while maybe tailoring your words to the situation — e.g. the Senate floore.
    Hit “Franken” on the search button (new to our site). Good stuff.

  3. jloveland says:

    The political consultants will put Al into their off-the-shelf formula. The ads will show Al showing PDA for his family, Al in a school room, Al listening to workers, Al talking to seniors, Al with patients, Al looking senatorial working at a desk, and Al addressing an adoring crowd.

    You know the ads. The narratives will talk about his position on the top three issues, according to the polls. And in the process, Al will blend into utter sameness with scores of other candidates on the airwaves running remarkably similar ads.

    Instead of those kinds of ads, I’d have him talking in his own words, delivering the kind of general stuff I suggested in this earlier post. Stuff that is what the genuine Al is, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes pointed and always unvarnished. Stuff that innoculates him from the crap he knows is coming. Stuff that explains that he understands the difference between being a comedian/talk radio jock and being a representative of Minnesota. Stuff that makes him real and human.

    Not the formulaic stuff that washes over people unheard.

    I’m fairly sure I’ve never used the word “stuff” more in a post. My but I’m an articulate fellow.

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