OPINION

News flash: politicians are human!

Candidates are people, despite their helpers’ best efforts to suck all the life out of them

PAUL WELLS January 28 2008
OPINION

News flash: politicians are human!

Candidates are people, despite their helpers’ best efforts to suck all the life out of them

PAUL WELLS January 28 2008

News flash: politicians are human!

OPINION

Candidates are people, despite their helpers’ best efforts to suck all the life out of them

PAUL WELLS

No wonder there’s been so much talk of fairy tales. Hillary Clinton was in danger for her political life in New Hampshire. But a single tear —and she didn’t even have to shed it, it just welled up in her eye—was enough to confound the prince who had put her in such peril. A tear, a prince: all that’s missing is a frog, and Fred Thompson will do in a pinch.

“It’s not easy,” Clinton told a voter in a coffee shop, “and I could not do it if I just didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do.” That’s when her eyes got moist. One of them, anyway. “This is very personal for me. It’s not just political. It’s not just public.”

Of course the moment was all three. Personal yes, but political too, and very public indeed.

Clinton won New Hampshire even though all the polls had said she was running behind. The clenched-teeth civility of the dialogue between her campaign and Barack Obama’s evaporated. The tone has turned downright snippy. Inevitably, debate over the meaning of the tear has eclipsed debate over, say, the two candidates’ health care plans. The usual suspects lined up on each side of the tear to demonstrate that overwrought prose is not dead. Germaine Greer never wants to cry again: “The currency, you might say, has become devalued.” Erica Jong discovered it was all about her: “I have been assailed by both genders as self-involved, narcissistic, shrill—buzz words for women who try to change the status quo.” Of course there was a debate over the tear’s authenticity. Dave Barry was the only one with a sense of humour about it: “Why was no sample made available to the media for testing?” The campaign’s next chapters are uncomfortably close, so we’ll venture no predictions here, nor any particular preference. But can we pause to cheer, once again, the failure of poll-driven, consultant-dominated, robo-candidate politics?

Ifyou’re going to buy this thesis, you’ll have to believe the tear was natural and accidental. Many won’t. The impulse to believe nothing in politics is natural is very strong. It’s actually easier to assume the Clintontronic SynthetaTear 2008 was airlifted from a laboratory in Tucson and spritzed into the candidate’s baleful, waiting eye by a team of retired Navy SEALs. But if you believe, as I do, that Clinton just got a bit misty over the croissants, then an amazing lesson can be learned.

Candidates are human, despite their helpers’ best efforts to suck the life out of them.

This simple truth is the eternal bane of consultants’ and pollsters’ existence. Their efforts to reduce politicians to pencils with no greater ambition than to methodically tick off the

electorate’s top issues are eternal, sophisticated and doomed. Politics remains a human business. Faith, fragility and initiative—the electorate’s, but also the pracitioners’—are eternal and, over the long run, decisive.

This is not the same as saying the good guy always wins. People will disagree about who the good guy even is. (Complaints of bias always mean “Why don’t you share my bias?”) It simply means the exercise of the democratic franchise is neither bloodless nor bovine, neither a cold expression of rational calculation on one hand nor the thoughtless wandering of the herd on the other. It’s in between, in the human zone

where head and heart do the best they can. Hard as it may be to believe, that’s where most politicians live too.

Or at least the successful ones. These days there’s always a robo-candidate or two in the losers’ circle. Two years ago the American political reporter Joe Klein wrote a book called Politics Lost, in which he lamented the decline of his country’s politics from Bobby Kennedy to John Kerry. Klein’s chosen villains were the “Pollster-Consultant Industrial Complex,” the high-paid focus-group mongers who methodically strip a candidate of charm, risk, frailty or insight. All that’s left is a walking compilation of the latest polling data. Klein devotes considerable space to Tad Devine, Bob Shrum and Mike Donilon, the team behind Al Gore and John Kerry, the 2000 and 2004 Democratic candidates.

But surely the interesting thing about Gore and Kerry is that they lost. Even the toss-up that the Supreme Court decided in favour of Gore’s 2000 opponent should never have happened if the candidate’s helpers were as clever as they thought. He looked hectored, beset by foul expertise, everywhere he went. It would have been better to let him say what he thought. Nobler at least, and probably more effective. The same can be said for the best recent Canadian example of a candidate who thought he could outsource his judgment to the finest consultants available, Paul Martin. His helpers didn’t grant him a single day in the company

of his own head from June 2002 to January 2006. It showed. It couldn’t last.

Stephen Harper spends more on polls than Martin ever did, but it doesn’t have much to do with either his success or its limits. Whether you like Harper’s scrappiness or hate it, find him inspiring or scary, there’s a genuineness to him. That’s why the emotions he arouses are so fierce. Manufactured candidates can’t make anyone care either way. Which is where Hillary Clinton was until her shell cracked. M

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