Seventeen Candidates in Search of a Story

Last week, I described how successful presidential contenders construct their candidacies as a three-part narrative: part one tells what's wrong with the country and its government, part two describes the place they want to take the country, and part three explains why they, and only they, can deliver us from the bleak present to the brighter tomorrow they promise.

It's now time to look at what kind of a job the current presidential candidates are doing in constructing the broad campaign narrative that tells voters not just who they are and what they want to do, but what a vote for that candidate means. It is the last feature of the campaign narrative -- what my vote says about me -- that is most important, and most often ignored.

Let's start with the Republicans. In recent years, Democrats have marveled at their opponents' skill at campaigning, their deft media management, and their finely honed message. But one can scour the '08 GOP field in vain for anything resembling a coherent narrative.

Obviously, the Republican candidates have a harder time telling the first part of the three-part story -- the part that tells us what's wrong with the country or the government -- since their party is the one in charge. Yet if you aren't arguing that everything is great and should continue on the path we're on -- something George H.W. Bush did in 1988, and Al Gore should have done but didn't in 2000 -- you have to find a way to tap into whatever discontent exists. And when an astonishing 74 percent of the public tells Gallup they are "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States" -- the highest number in 15 years, since the depths of the 1992 recession -- you had better acknowledge that something is wrong.

But as yet, the Republicans haven't been able to bring themselves to say so. Mitt Romney is the only one who even suggests such a thing, but his arguments sound 25 years out of date: When he goes on about how Washington spends too much and taxes are too high, one half expects him to say we've got to get tougher with the Soviets. Like most of the hits of the '80s, it has a certain nostalgic appeal, but it isn't going to get large numbers of people out on the dance floor. Romney does have a portrait of himself he offers -- the can-do business leader ready to solve problems -- but he doesn't have much to say about why the current historical moment demands him and no one else.

The leader in the polls (for the moment, anyway) seems to be attempting to recycle George W. Bush's story from 2004. Remember September 11, says Rudy Giuliani, elect me or the terrorists will kill us all, and by the way, remember September 11. But four years later, the story has grown stale.

Unfortunately for him, all national security questions are colored by the issue of the Iraq war, and Giuliani's emphatic refusal to even talk about Iraq suggests he has nothing to say. But more importantly, it's hard to tell just what a vote for Giuliani is supposed to mean, apart from, "I'm scared!" As Kevin Baker explains in the latest issue of Harper's, Giuliani's entire career in New York was built on the exploitation of fear and racism. If Romney is talking like it's 1980, Giuliani may wish it was 1968.

The newest GOP campaign curiosity, Fred Thompson, takes from Republican super-hero Ronald Reagan the idea of selling a persona crafted for the screen. Unlike Reagan, however, Thompson is trying to re-enact his fictional portrayals of admirals and office-holders, hoping voters will nod their heads at the gruff but folksy, authoritative and strong persona he honed in role after role. But Reagan didn't simply re-create his on-screen characters -- indeed, those were not particularly heroic. (Movie mogul Jack Warner, when informed of Reagan's desire to run for governor, famously said, "No, Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend.") He crafted a new persona, one pitched to the moment he found himself in.

Unlike Reagan, Thompson is selling a character, but one without a story. Reagan told, as well as anyone, a story both about himself and about us as Americans. To call Reagan's rhetoric "patriotic" is a gross oversimplification: it wove a tale about America both elaborate and simple that explained our past, present and future and placed every citizen within that story. Reagan elevated ordinary people to the status of key actors in the stories he told. To take just one example, he was the first to include the citizen-hero shout-out, in which the hero sits in the audience as his or her story is told, as part of his State of the Union, a practice that has been included in every such address since.

When people supported Reagan, they were declaring themselves to not only share the values he supposedly embodied (optimism, strength, conviction), but to be that kind of citizen hero, who had simply not yet had the opportunity to pull people from a freezing river after a plain crash, or scale the cliffs at Normandy. While he is doing his best to offer up the standard conservative checklist to reassure restive primary voters, Thompson gives no sense of what a vote for him is supposed to represent.

Then finally, we have John McCain, who is the most narrative-challenged of all the GOP candidates. What exactly would voting for John McCain say about me and what I want for the future? The answer is, who knows? This is particularly curious, given the fact that McCain had his three-part story down cold in 2000. The government was corrupt and in thrall to special interests, and he, the crusading reformer, would sweep the moneychangers from the temple. Doing it would take someone who wasn't chained to his party (a "maverick"), and someone of uncommon courage (like someone who had endured torture for five and a half years in a Vietnamese POW camp). But today, McCain barely ever talks about political reform, and that vacuum in his campaign is filled only by desperate defenses of his unending support for the Iraq war.

All the Republicans are hampered by the necessity of defending the status quo as the party in power, and their support for George W. Bush in particular. So you might expect that the Democrats, as the ones who can best make the case for change, would all have their stories down pat. But with a couple of exceptions, they don't.

For no one is this lack of narrative coherence more curious than Hillary Clinton. As everyone knows, she has the most battle-hardened campaign team, led by the candidate and her husband. They're smart, they've done this before, they know how to take and land a punch, they're schooled in both the minutia and the big picture of presidential campaigns, and above all, they Know How To Win. Yet on all three parts of the three-part story, the Clinton campaign offers nothing. She has plenty of criticisms of the current state of affairs, but one would be hard pressed to summarize them into a single, understandable statement, to say, "This is what Hillary Clinton thinks is wrong." As for what America is supposed to look like at the end of her successful presidency, we have yet to be told. And why is Hillary Clinton the only one who can lead us out of the wilderness?

Her answer to that question -- and the answer she and her campaign give whenever they are asked why she is running, or why she is the best candidate -- is that she has lots of experience and qualifications. That may be true, but it isn't a story. It's a description of a résumé, not of a period in history and one person's role in that history. (Incidentally, "I'm experienced" is also the message being offered by Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd. Why any one of them thinks it will vault him over his competitors is a mystery of uncommon inscrutability.)

In the narrative contest, John Edwards would have to be said to come in second. His story is an updated version of the "Two Americas" theme he ran on in 2004, which says that the rich and connected are reaping the benefits of America's bounty, while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet, forever vulnerable to the loss of a job or a sudden illness. As a child of modest circumstances who achieved the American dream, Edwards argued that he would find the solutions to bring prosperity and security to everyone. Today, Edwards has adapted that story to argue for big, bold solutions to problems like health care and global warming.

Edwards' story is complete -- it contains all three parts -- yet vulnerable. It is currently being hacked away by a conspiracy of contempt, a cooperative effort by Republicans and the press to undermine the last and most important part of the three-part narrative, that the candidate is the one and only person who can achieve the better day he promises. As Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly recently observed, "a healthy chunk of the national political press corps doesn't like John Edwards."

Simply put, they think he's a fraud, that he must not really care about poor people because he himself is not actually poor. (Their real problem with Edwards may be, as many bloggers have pointed out, that he's a traitor to his, and their, class.) Combine it with the presumption from which they begin analyzing questions like this -- that Republicans are "authentic," while Democrats are phony -- and you have a potentially lethal combination. How many hundreds of articles on Edwards have dropped in, apropos of nothing, that he got a $400 haircut? While any candidate so consistently described as inauthentic would be in trouble, the label is particularly damaging to one who stakes his claim on his empathy for regular people. Which is precisely why the GOP attacks him so relentlessly on this point, and why the press takes such delight in helping them do it.

Finally, we come to Barack Obama. When he took the stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama may not have thought he'd be running for president just three years later. But he was already telling his version of the three-part presidential campaign narrative. Everyone remembers his litany on the inaccuracy of the red/blue divide: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." But what is less remembered is the passage that followed, when he spoke of "the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores... the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

In other words, the America that we want to believe in is embodied in Barack Obama, in almost any way you can think of. We want to believe we can transcend partisan bickering; he is the candidate who promises to do so. We want to believe we can overcome our history of racial animus; Obama is multiracial, offering us the opportunity to proclaim our good will with our vote, to say that America does indeed have a place for a skinny kid with a funny name. We want to move beyond the culture war struggles that have divided us since the sixties; unlike all the other candidates running, Obama is a post-boomer, too young to have gone to Vietnam or burned his draft card, neither a hippie nor a square. He, and he alone, can take us from our period of rancor and partisanship to not just a new beginning but one that brings us closer to our fundamentally American values and makes true the things we want our country to be.

Obama has been telling this story ever since that night in Boston three years ago. You may or may not buy it, but it has everything a three-part narrative should have: it describes the problematic present and the hopeful future, and explains why the candidate is the only one who can deliver that future.

And the genius of Obama's story is that it can appeal to both the middle and the left. If you're a centrist, you can see it as offering the kind of transcendence of partisanship you've been waiting for. But if you're a serious progressive, you can see it as a way to take from conservatives the weapons they've been using to beat you down for years. In other words, the centrist can see the essence of Obama's story as substantive, while the progressive can see the essence of Obama's story as formal, or, if you like, tactical. (It just so happens that the progressive is right -- if you look at the positions Obama takes and the policies he wants to pursue, they are pretty firmly progressive.)

Most importantly, Obama's story invests the votes of those who accept it with meaning. Like Reagan, Obama understands that a presidential story should tell us not only something about who the candidate is, but who we are. When we vote for a candidate, we are not only signaling our support for his or her story, we are placing ourselves within it. Those who voted for Nixon in 1968 and 1972 were proclaiming their membership in the "silent majority" and their intention to beat back the hippies. Those who voted for Reagan in 1980 wanted to see themselves as hopeful, strong, and patriotic. Those who support Obama see themselves as avatars of a new age in American life, one where struggles over race and sexual culture war issues have receded to irrelevance.

This focus on the campaign as narrative might sound mushy-headed, too far-removed from the realities of the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, or any of the other concrete issues that affect voters' lives. But the importance of stories in all our lives can barely be overstated. We construct stories to organize our own memories, to make sense of what we experience, and to forge connections with other people. We build our relationships by trading stories -- how many times has someone told you a story, and your immediate response is, "Something just like that happened to me..." This is more than just a technique of conversation; it shows how memory and cognitive associations are organized.

The most effective political communicators weave their stories into our stories. Nonetheless, the fact that at the moment, Barack Obama has his campaign narrative written, and the others mostly don't, is not a guarantee that he will be the next president. For starters, primary campaigns are much more volatile and subject to influences like the weather on primary day than the general election.

But the candidate who wins is likely to be the one whose story contains answers to our most fundamental questions. How will Americans see themselves and their country -- its present, and its potential -- in 2008? The candidate who can understand that question, and place him or herself within the answer, is likely to be the one taking the oath of office in January 2009.

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