Voters' Authentic Yearning
Indiana politics was rocked last week by a story that went unnoticed outside the borders of the Hoosier state.
In the May 2 Republican primary, state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Garton of Columbus, a 36-year veteran and one of the most powerful legislators in the nation, was soundly beaten by Greg Walker, a young accountant making his first bid for any office. The local press had criticized Garton for championing a measure that awarded lifetime health insurance benefits to members of the legislature -- and public resentment of that perk powered Walker to an upset victory.
What happened in Indiana is a signal of the voter restlessness that imperils incumbents of both parties this year -- but especially the Republicans who control Congress.
It is also, I think, a symptom of a call for more accountability and leadership at all levels of government. In a time of war and wrenching economic change, the voters are beginning to demand more candor and more responsibility.
That is also the theme sounded by one of the current generation's best political reporters, Joe Klein, in his new book, "Politics Lost." The subtitle of the book is "How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid."
That makes it sound like an attack on political consultants -- the pollsters and media advisers who have come to dominate campaign strategy in the decades since Joe McGinniss wrote "The Selling of the President," about the Nixon campaign of 1968.
Klein, who now writes for Time magazine, scorns some of them, notably Bob Shrum, the Democratic speechwriter who has been involved in almost every losing presidential campaign in the modern era. He delivers glancing blows to others in that fraternity of well-paid advisers, but Shrum is his favorite target. Any Democratic hopeful who hires Shrum for 2008 is on notice that he can expect nothing but grief from Joe Klein.
But in fact, Klein admires the skills of many others and says at the end of his screed that "there is a place for prudent consultancy in American politics," noting that Ronald Reagan "could never have been Reagan without a stage manager like Michael Deaver."
His real beef is not with the consultants but with presidential candidates who lack the convictions, the ideas and the backbone to run their races as themselves. His plea is for authenticity, and on that score I think he reads the voters exactly right.
Klein draws a devastating portrait of the past two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, faulting both of them for trimming their public positions to suit what they -- and their consultants -- thought were the prevailing winds.
At times, Klein sounds like a frustrated campaign manager himself, suggesting how he would have advised those candidates to handle critical moments in their pursuit of the presidency. But his fundamental point is right: The voters can sniff hypocrisy and spot what is synthetic about a candidate. They also can accept disagreement with a politician's policy views if they believe he is genuine in his convictions.
That was, of course, one of Reagan's great strengths, and it worked to President Bush's advantage for a long time -- even though he took the nation to war and refused to ask for any sacrifice except from the families whose sons and daughters were the casualties.
The presumption of authenticity -- the assumption that what he says, he actually believes -- is John McCain's greatest strength going into the 2008 presidential race. That presumption will be tested this weekend when McCain speaks at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and I will be surprised if he fails the exam.
My guess is that, rather than pandering to the fundamentalist's social agenda, McCain will challenge the Liberty students to bring their moral energy and religious conviction to bear on the struggle for political reform, immigrant rights and environmental improvement -- the causes with which he is most identified.
As much as anyone in public life, McCain has built his reputation on authenticity. No consultant would ever suggest he abandon it.