Ah, the fickle American voter: One campaign will be all about issues; in the next, character is everything. What's a poor presidential candidate to do?
They'd do well to wonder, since the current campaign looks plenty fluid. Mixed results in the recent off-year elections led analysts to conclusions such as this from Stuart Rothenberg: "The only lesson is, we are in a very competitive political environment nationally. Anything can happen, depending on the candidates, on the personalities, on the campaigns, on the money."
What voters do not seem inclined to emphasize is clearer than what they do. A recent USA Today/CNN Gallup poll says people aren't much worried about the usual indicators of exemplary living. Whether the candidate served in the military, attends religious services regularly or has ever used illegal drugs barely moved the needle. The big numbers came in for having a vision for the country's future, keeping the economy strong and being a decisive leader.
The other thing this campaign does not seem to be about, at least so far, is issues. Only half the poll respondents said a candidate's "generally agreeing with me on the issues I care about" was critical.
Lacking specifics about what's motivating voters, the media have come up with a watchword: authenticity. Supposedly, today's voter yearns for a straight-talking, no-baloney, genuine-article sort of a guy.
How do the candidates stack up on this count?
This may be the most important factor in the rise of John McCain and Bill Bradley, the two men who have been anointed kings of authenticity. Both do seem disinclined to contort themselves in the quest for popularity. Both are willing to take unpopular stands--though Bradley was disquietingly quick to shift his ethanol stance to please Iowans.
The countervailing early objections concern personality traits on opposite ends of the temperament scale--McCain is said to be too hotheaded, Bradley overly deliberative. Will their knack for coming off as genuine overwhelm these impressions? We'll see.
As for the front-runners, an electoral emphasis on authenticity is indeed an unfortunate development for Al Gore. The vice president, whose entire life has been an impeccable training for the top job, appears nonetheless to have a sign around his neck begging, "Tell me how to please you!" His manic bearing in the New Hampshire debate made you nostalgic for the old woodenness.
Hardest to score on authenticity is George W. Bush, who comes across as genuine--but genuinely what? Perhaps genuinely a regular guy? His gentleman-C report card, pirated from Yale's files and published in the New Yorker, would support this. So would his pop-quiz failure, which put him squarely in the company of most Americans, who couldn't begin to name the four world leaders sprung on Bush by a TV ambush-interviewer.
As the Pakistani daily Dawn reported, "General Pervez Musharraf has suddenly become an overnight celebrity and a 'yardstick' of general knowledge for Americans, and may well become the factor to decide who will be America's next president. The Musharraf quiz . . . has stormed America with everyone asking everyone else: 'Who is the leader of Pakistan?' If you don't know the answer, you are considered dumb, like presidential candidate George Bush."
The worst of the testing tizzy is not Bush's ignorance but his goofy efforts to reassure us he isn't. No one wants to see a presidential candidate waving around his current reading material ("Titan," the John D. Rockefeller biography--please note the 774 pages!). And no one wants to hear him sound a Nixon-like "I am not a crook" note, as when Bush told Time magazine, "I've never held myself out to be any great genius, but I'm plenty smart. And I've got good common sense and good instincts."
Those worrying about Dubya's lack of encyclopedic knowledge may take comfort in the fact that he surrounds himself with good people. But, surround himself as he will, he'll need to make some tough call at some point with some foreign leader. Whether he is "a dumb duffer who cannot make out whether a 'military coup' is a good thing or bad," as the Pakistani paper said, will then count more than authenticity.
In any case, it's likely that authenticity will be supplanted--perhaps by a quest for continuity. The biggest challenges these candidates face are good economic times and a president who, for all his exasperating flaws, enjoys extraordinarily high job ratings. The man who convinces us he can keep us steadily on the course Bill Clinton has set will likely succeed him.