Michael Gerson: Authenticity still works as a winning campaign tool in primaries

06/26/2014 5:25 PM

06/26/2014 5:57 PM

When I worked as a Senate aide in the early 1990s, the state of New York was represented by two figures who could hardly have been more different.

Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the Senate’s brilliant, urbane, bow-tied intellectual who wrote books on sociology and international law. His colleague was Republican Al “The Pal” D'Amato, a glad-handing, locally focused machine pol, with an accent only a New Yorker could love.

Both men specialized in being vivid versions of themselves: the irascible professor and “Senator Pothole.” And both were rewarded by essentially the same electorate, serving as a lab test in the elasticity of democratic judgments.

The lesson here: There are many ways to succeed in American politics, but most of them involve authenticity. Voters often take politicians in the totality of their acts. They develop a composite picture that includes a candidate’s general policy predispositions (left or right) but also his or her public persona.

In recent primaries, the anti-incumbent narrative has mostly taken a beating. Not a single Senate Republican officeholder is likely to lose a primary this year.

But the importance of authenticity has been affirmed. In Mississippi, Thad Cochran embraced his bring-home-the-bacon persona. No other GOP candidate, to my knowledge, campaigned on the claim, “I think earmarks have gotten a bad name.”

This is not the noblest in American politics. But it has a certain appeal in Mississippi, where hurricanes happen. The outcome of the Mississippi primary had varied causes that complicate broad judgments. Cochran was wise to embrace an identity he could not escape — sometimes called “hanging a lantern” on your problems. The image of “pork king” ended up being a successful contrast to Chris McDaniel’s crude imitation of Sen. Ted Cruz.

The outcome of this month’s GOP primary in South Carolina was a stronger affirmation of the political power of authenticity. Sen. Lindsey Graham was reckoned among the most vulnerable of GOP incumbents. He had supported the Wall Street bailout, voted for Obama Supreme Court justices, championed foreign aid and was a member of the “Gang of Eight,” pushing immigration reform.

Graham got 56 percent of the primary vote for several reasons. He nailed the political fundamentals — fundraising and local presence. He emphasized his conservative views on pro-life issues and the Benghazi and Veterans Affairs scandals. But he didn’t back down on immigration, or on his broader defense of political compromise to achieve public goals.

The lantern was hung. Graham said before the election, “I think I’m gonna win, and I’m gonna win being me.” And he did.

This lesson has implications for the 2016 presidential race. The implicit front-runners — Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush — are lumped together as candidates of the past, essentially the incumbents in the race.

Clinton’s pre-campaign book launch sputtered on authenticity. There has always been a contrast between Clinton’s 2008 primary persona — the candidate of blue-collar regulars and precinct walkers — and her background and political history. Hillary and Bill Clinton’s traditional closeness to Wall Street is unappealing to portions of the Democratic Party that would prefer to “occupy” that real estate. And the internal tensions of Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley-Yale populism have been on full display in comments — “dead broke,” not “truly well-off” — that echo Mitt Romney’s conception of personal wealth.

Bush, in contrast, may suffer from an excess of authenticity. Many Republicans judge his continued support for comprehensive immigration reform and Common Core educational standards as disqualifying. But Bush matches conservative convictions on tax policy, fiscal restraint and life issues.

Clinton wrestles with the authenticity issue. Bush may succeed by being a vivid version of himself.

To reach Michael Gerson, send email to michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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