Authenticity's electricity


Howard Dean is the buzz candidate of summer 2003.

In the span of a few months, the former Vermont governor distinguished himself from the crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls by winning an online primary, raising more money than his competitors in the latest filing period and recruiting a quarter of a million supporters via the Internet.

Last week, Dean's captivation of the national media became official when all three major news magazines ran features about him, and two put him on their covers. "People-powered" Howard has become the John McCain of the 2004 presidential race.

But why Dean? What is it about politicians like Dean and McCain that so excites voters and the media?

Part of the answer is authenticity, a characteristic evident in so few elected officials that citizens find it refreshing, almost intoxicating. Authenticity should not be equated with novelty, likability or even honesty. An altogether different political trait, authenticity requires a bit of explaining.

Sadly, in recent decades the term "conviction politician" is more likely to refer to an official under indictment than a leader who takes courageous positions based on his or her instincts. Politicians often pepper their speeches with "the American people want this" or "the American people believe that." Words like these suggest that politicians are not revealing what they really think, that instead they are just responding to polling numbers.

Authentic politicians are different. Not because they listen better or understand America intuitively, but because they lead with their beliefs and their chins - and let the voters and pundits be damned. Authenticity is the political antidote to duplicity and phoniness.

Americans can sniff out duplicitous phonies. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was unfairly persecuted as a liar who said he invented the Internet and discovered the hazardous waste contamination at Love Canal. (He didn't; Gore's statements were distorted or quoted out of context.) But the media accurately depicted Gore as a phony: He did wear earth tones with cowboy boots and a Blackberry wireless on his belt in an attempt to portray himself as some sort of 21st- century Tennessee techno-cowboy, rather than the son of senator who grew up in Washington. His posturing wasn't deceptive, but it was glaringly inauthentic.

If posturing is bad, inauthentic policy stances are worse. When answering tough questions, politicians often balk, double-talk and otherwise tightrope-walk through their answers. This was Bill Clinton's problem as president: He tried to be all things to all people all the time. Many of McCain's followers, when polled, disagreed with a lot of the Arizona senator's votes in Congress. They still liked him.

Voters don't expect politicians to agree with them about everything. Besides, agreement is impossible. Consider that in a hypothetical political world with only 10 support-or-oppose issues, the chance that a congresswoman and a random constituent agree on all 10 is less than 1 in 1,000! (One-half raised to the 10th power is 1/1,024th.) Even for two ideologically similar people who see eye-to-eye 90 percent of the time, the chance of agreement on all 10 issues is still only 1 in 3. If a voter is looking for a candidate with whom she agrees all the time, she'd better put her own name on the ballot.

Authentic candidates admit they don't have all the answers. Early in the 2000 campaign, a reporter challenged George W. Bush with questions, asking him to name the leaders of several countries. Bush couldn't. But Bush's grasp of facts and history never dented his authenticity - the trait that carried him a long way during the election, and upon which he now stakes his entire claim to leadership.

Dean had a similar moment in June when he supposedly flunked the "Tim Russert primary," the ritual grilling on Meet the Press. Many inside the Washington beltway chortled. They said Dean looked foolish because, rather than fudge his answers, he responded to a few of Russert's nitpicky questions by saying he didn't know.

Most Americans can't pinpoint troop counts or name the president of Sierra Leone. They can appreciate what my father always told me is the smart man's answer: "I don't know." Sure enough, as the talking heads were thrashing him for his Meet the Press performance, Dean's online contributions skyrocketed. Like Bush, he knows the value of not trying to answer questions he can't. Russert, it turns out, lost his own primary.

Inauthentic politicians who give circuitous answers to avoid offending anybody end up inspiring nobody. Authentic leaders inspire. Instead of pandering, they unapologetically disagree with voters and openly admit they don't know it all - and still ask for their votes. Voters appreciate candor and humility because it's politically authentic.

But, is authenticity enough? Ross Perot burst upon the national stage in 1992, capturing an impressive 19 percent of the presidential vote with his no-nonsense talk. Ultimately, however, running with one idea (deficit reduction), no support team, and no party apparatus was not enough. Had Perot run for a major party nomination or been prevented by law from spending his millions, he would never have made it to the general election.

Likewise, in 2000 McCain's "Straight Talk Express" ran out of gas against Bush, a governor from a major state with a presidential surname and loads of money. After getting creamed by McCain in the New Hampshire primary, Bush realized his resources weren't sufficient. Soon thereafter, McCain realized his charms weren't, either. Winning candidates need both. Once Bush stopped resting on his laurels and began introducing himself to Republicans on a more personal level, McCain's charms were no longer enough. Winning candidates need cash and character.

Dean is running as a major party candidate, so he won't have Perot's problem. And thus far he has shown that he can use his authenticity to generate resources even better than McCain did. In fact, every time Dean boldly challenges the prevailing wisdom of his own party or the president's credibility, his poll numbers and campaign contributions shoot up. On television last week, Dean even messed with Texas, running ads in Bush's home state and telling interviewers that the president "is all hat and no cattle." The media love it.

If Dean wins the nomination - and to do that, he would have to get by a field of candidates who may not be as authentic, but who have solid support in traditional Democratic constituencies - he will still face a stiff challenge in the general election. Bush will have at least $200 million to spend, and most Americans view him as a very real, authentic guy, someone who responded as they would have in the traumatic weeks after Sept. 11, 2001.

But the president's image may be changing. Half of Americans surveyed now think Bush and his advisers exaggerated intelligence information in the run-up to the Iraq war. The straight-shootin' president has dodged a lot of questions, and held just nine news conferences during his presidency. (His father had held 61 by this point of his term.) If Americans begin to view Bush as a chickenhawk who avoided his generation's war but rushed to send this generation's youth into Iraq, and a "chickentalk" when it comes to answering tough questions in public about his decisions and policies, he may lose his aura of authenticity.

Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, has let slip that the White House believes Dean would make a weak opponent. Did Rove leak this story line to damage Dean in the primaries because Bush's team views Dean as the most formidable threat to re-election? Maybe Rove recognizes a familiar characteristic in Dean, and knows an authentic challenger when he sees one.

Thomas F. Schaller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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