In Campaigns, Image is Everything


Tonight's the big one. For most voters, this will be the evening when they finally learn something about the positions of the three candidates running for president. Or will they?

Not many elections these days are decided on specifics. We select our leaders based on feel-good images and visceral impressions. We don't even bother to find out how candidates would deal with a problem except in some generalized way.

Ross Perot is very good at this kind of political fluff: show 'em a chart, hit 'em with a homespun homily and move on to something else ("we're in deep voodoo, folks" . . . "I can tell you before we look at the engine, an engine tune-up ain't going to fix it. We're going to have to do a major overhaul" . . . "Now this will break your heart, this is like a general switching armies in the middle of a war").

But at least he's had the courage to prescribe some bad-tasting medicine, though he's skirted the specifics in nearly all his campaign appearances.

George Bush and Bill Clinton are the real experts at sound-bite politicking. The president describes his main rival as a "tax-and-spend Democrat" in cahoots with the "gridlock Congress," neither of whom understand "we've got to get this country moving again." How? The specifics aren't there in his speeches.

Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, makes sure we know he stands for "change." He tells us he's got a health-care plan, but conveniently leaves out the details. Same with the deficit-reduction plan of both of these candidates. They've got a plan, but somehow they never get around to going over the numbers with us.

If you expect them to do so in tonight's debate, you'll be disappointed. Both of them know that Americans don't want to hear the truly bad news that taxes are certain to go up, services will go down and this country's standard of living will diminish as the next president tries to keep the U.S. from drowning in a pool of red ink. It's too bleak a story. It would turn off voters.

Just ask Walter Mondale. He dared to tell Americans the truth in 1984: That he'd have to raise their taxes as president to cut the deficit. His reward for this honesty-in-politics? He won a mere 2.5 percent of the country's electoral votes and only 40 percent of the popular vote.

Ever since then, dissembling has become a fine art for presidential and congressional candidates.

Even if you gave voters the facts, they'd never remember them. Name one substantive item from the Reagan-Mondale debates, or the Bush-Dukakis debates. Does anyone remember anything that either Nixon or Kennedy said in their famous 1960 debate?

Not likely. What they do remember, though, is the impression of the two candidates in that first televised debate. It was shattering for Richard Nixon and all but elected John Kennedy. Television favors the blurred image; the fuzzy but pleasing impression; the telegenic, youthful candidate. Details? Forget it.

But it's more than just the superficiality of television. Voters just don't care to find out about their elected officials.

How many readers have looked at Barbara Mikulski's voting record in Congress? Does her campaign rhetoric clash with the votes she has cast? What about her opponent, Alan Keyes? How many readers have studied his detailed positions on issues?

More likely, voters will opt for fuzzy images and warm impressions: Mr. Keyes is a sharp-edged and aggressive intellectual; Ms. Mikulski is queen of the funny one-liners and so folksy you forget she used to be a professor. She'll win in a landslide.

Look at the election in the 1st Congressional District. Not many voters have bothered to find out specifics on the performance of the two candidates in Congress.

Has Tom McMillen catered to banking interests or has he stood up to them? Has he waffled on environmental issues? How has he voted on tax and spending issues?

What about Wayne Gilchrest's record? Has he been ineffective in his first term? Did he cast his votes to appease certain interest groups, or did he vote his conscience?

All we have are images: McMillen, the wealthy jock-turned-pol Capitol Hill insider vs. Gilchrest, the well-meaning but naive "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." McMillen, the well-financed, slick campaigner with special-interest support vs. Gilchrest, the empty-pockets, down-home house-painter-turned-campaigner. Is there any doubt how this race will turn out?

Style over substance. Image over reality. We want to elect people with whom we can identify or who look and sound like leaders, who will tell us change is needed but make us feel good about it. Who won't bother us with the ugly truth of what has to be done.

Think about that as you watch the first debate tonight. Impression counts. No one seems interested in delving into the details.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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