Keep it Real

The US presidential elections are over, Barack Obama has made history once more in his ongoing series of firsts, taking down age-old barriers and prejudices. He has excited, motivated and brought hope to millions of Americans and people all over the world with a simple but powerful message of unity, sacrifice, service and hope. He built his entire message on the premise of change - change from politics as usual; change from the divisiveness of the cultural and ideological wars fought out of Washington; change from a government that believed its own lies; change from the subversion of science; change from unilateralism in international affairs … as complete a break with the recent past as is practically possible.

Obama built a message of change straight from his heart, a message that reflected his life, temperament and values. He delivered it through stirring speeches that hardly left anyone indifferent. The message bore exhortations that have echoed throughout the world and generated powerful reverberations that moved massive crowds of sometimes weeping supporters and followers from a broad range of backgrounds and demographics. It has shattered long-held prejudices and showed how the human spirit can triumph over the world as white voters joined hands with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Christians, muslims etc... and carried the first African American to the US Presidency. It is a powerful reminder of who we really are and the dominance of faith over doubt, hope over fear and love over hate.

Pundits and analysts are already busy dissecting what went wrong for Senator McCain and why Obama won. Of course, many things happened to produce that result but two things that struck me very much about the McCain Campaign are the lack of a core message and the absence of authenticity.

The McCain campaign seemed to be working purely from a tactical playbook with no overarching strategic framework holding it all together. This explains the lack of a central theme but it also means that they could only react to events and adopt an opportunistic posture during the race. In an election environment where the number of variables and imponderables is almost unlimited, voters look for steadiness, stability and vision in their leaders. The leader must ride the stormy seas with confidence, purpose and a strong sense of direction. These are all very difficult, if not impossible, to have when one lacks a strategic framework within which to operate.

The consequences are clear for all to see: the nomination of the Vice Presidential Candidate, the abrupt and pseudo-suspension of the campaign, the decision not to participate in the second debate, the reversal of that decision, the rapid fire movement from one theme to another, the insistence on negative campaign tactics and personal attacks on the opponent in the face of overwhelming evidence of their ineffectiveness, etc.. In this total muddle, the Obama Campaign gave the word “erratic” a whole new significance as it sought to define the performance of Senator McCain. Things got so bad that every move the McCain Campaign made only played into and reinforced that narrative. As the Obama campaign grew its candidate and his change message into a brand, the McCain Campaign lurched from one theme to another, cycling through inexperience, Bill Ayres, ACORN, socialism, even communism, Joe the Plumber…They were just all over the place. The contrast in the leadership styles got sharper every time and the results simply reflected that.

The second problem I found in the McCain Campaign is the lack of authenticity in the message, or, should I say messages, they were putting out. Senator McCain is an American war hero and true patriot broadly admired across party lines. He has served his country with tremendous dedication and paid a terrible price for it and he’s been a genuine maverick standing up for truth as much as he could, distrusted and even hated by the extremists in his own party. He has acquired vast experience in foreign policy, all matters of government and truly knows how Washington functions. He’s genuinely admired by lots of Democrats and Independents. This, to me, was more than a winning combination of attributes. So what went wrong?

I know the economy has loomed large on these elections but, on top of that, my take is simple: McCain stopped being McCain and started faking McCain. When you get to the point where you have to strenuously remind everyone who you really are and keep doing so at every opportunity, it tells me you know deep down there’s something wrong with how you are coming across. McCain did not have to keep banging the drum of how he was a maverick; voters can see that for themselves. It suggested a certain subconscious fear that message was getting lost and he was right – McCain the Candidate had become a totally new individual.

In nominating Governor Palin as his running mate, McCain gave in to strong forces he’s always resisted and sold out to the right wing of his party. He basically dipped his brand in the very mud he’s avoided, a brand he’d so carefully built over the years. He stopped speaking from the heart and the “Straight Talk Express” veered sharply into the dark alleys of divisiveness, culture wars, demonization, name-calling, us against them and his message started going in all directions. Things got really ugly at times as overt racism started to rear its ugly head in some places. In the melee, McCain was caught between the rock of Democrats like John Lewis pushing back strongly and the hard place of a restless, angry and increasingly menacing Republican Party base. Survival instincts meant that the real Senator McCain had to emerge, if only temporarily, and take control. We saw that in the town hall meeting in which he forcefully corrected the elderly white lady who claimed that Obama is an Arab. That was a true McCain moment and I think he himself must have missed those moments throughout the campaign.

Image builders, consultants, handlers and aides to political leaders should not be attempting to remake these people into what they think the electorate wants. Their job is to accentuate the candidate’s strong points and minimize his or her weaknesses. There’s a high degree of dishonesty in trying to remodel a candidate from scratch into someone totally new; voters can see through that easily. Some analysts have suggested that Al Gore faced the same problem in the 2000 elections against George W. Bush. He was simply micro-managed and over-handled to the point where he stopped being his very passionate self and became this mechanical talking political head delivering speeches the electorate sometimes wondered if he himself believed.

It is all about authenticity. The more authentic the candidate, the better they’ll perform because they’ll stay within their comfort zone throughout the campaign and fight passionately from a position of strength. They’ll deliver their message straight from the heart and, in some strange way, such a message tends to resonate with audiences including those who eventually vote against the candidate. Curiously, McCain’s concession speech suddenly brought back the real John McCain – one who’s gracious and willing to serve his country even under the most demanding circumstances. It was a bit sad to watch him speak for I felt this is a good man going into history without all his chips falling into place.


Emmanuel Kijem © November 2008

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