I do not write a lot about politics, so many of you that read this may not know that I am a little bit of a politics junkie. I try to watch at least one politically oriented show an evening. Hardball is my favorite of these shows. Chris Matthews, during Super Tuesday, said something I have been thinking for a long time. People today are not so much about voting with constituencies, loyalties, and issues as they are voting for what kind of story they want their country to have at this point in history. The 2008 election is a choose your own adventure election, and the majority of electoral college delegates will decide which page we turn to next.
Several candidates who are now out of the presidential election process are out because they did not have compelling enough stories. On the Republican side, Guiliani and Romney both tried to sell themselves as problem solvers. Romney tried to run for President on a list of problem solving credentials in business and government. He came to Republicans with a resume, and tried to sell them on his skills as an efficient manager (which he is). The problem is that Americans do not want their story to be about being efficiently managed by an extremely wealthy benefactor. In fact many of them find that a little condescending. Guiliani tried to run on a history of solving problems. He talks about leading through 9-11 and turning New York around. He did a great job leading New York City through difficult times, but most Americans do not want our nation to be just like New York. Nor do they want their narrative to be about continuing to harken back to one of the darker days in American History.
Furthermore, you see a lot of conservatives pandering back to the years of Reagan. A narrative that attempts to follow the agenda of a politician that is dead and has been out of politics for 20 years is a recipe for failure as a narrative with younger voters and even middle aged forward thinking persons.
On the Democrat side, John Edwards had a very compelling narrative of the "two Americas", and he offered himself as an American Robin Hood. I know that John Edwards' conviction come from a place of deep conviction about Jesus' ethic of social justice, but he shared his message as a prophet and not a president. Prophets get shunned or killed most of the time. They do not win elections. Edwards' narrative was also contentious, and this contentious narrative has become more and more difficult for Americans to elect.
Of the people left in the race, each is telling a story. And we as Americans are listening and trying to choose between 3 1/2 of them (Huckabee only counts as 1/2 right now).
Hillary Clinton is telling several stories (which is one of the reasons she is slipping in the primaries). Several of her stories are similar to Romney. She is trying to impress us with her resume and her credentials, and her skills as a manager. Probably Clinton's most compelling narrative is essentially conservative in nature, by the literal meaning of the word "conservative". Hillary wants us to "go back to the future" by electing her to return us to the agenda and prosperity of the 1990s. She calls us to look back, notice where Bush got off track from the Clinton agenda, and emplores us to get back on the track that her husband started us on. The problem is, our collective memories of the Clinton's is not entirely positive, and there are emerging generations that want to look forward and not back.
Huckabee is also attempting to share a compelling narrative. His agenda is many ways is politically conservative, but it is also practically progressive. What I mean by Huckabee being progressive is that his campaign is future-oriented. He has new ideas about the tax code. He is fairly moderate on issues of immigration and the war, although he has been pushed in a more conservative direction. The problem with Huckabee's campaign is that while many people find the idea of a forward-thinking, guitar playing, conservative Christian interesting, Huckabee has yet to find a compelling narrative that draws people to him and his movement.
Of the candidates left, McCain and Obama have the most compelling narratives, which is why each of them has some sense of momentum in gaining their party's support. McCain embodies benevolent strength. This is shown through his personal experience as a prisoner of war. This is also shown by his political life. He has the courage to speak his convictions, even when it costs him dearly (such as the 2000 primary). He had the strength to admit his negligence in being involved with the Keating 5. He stands for a strong military, but is outspoken against torture. He isn't afraid to work across the aisle. He has an image as a maverick, which is especially attractive to people who are conservative but not slavishly devoted to conservative evangelical dogma. Most American's are fairly conservative in their financial and social beliefs, they just are not religious power monger, big business and oil conservatives. For these people, an independent minded, somewhat progressive, tough, ornery and generally on the right side of important issues McCain sounds good.
Obama's narrative is by far the most dreamy and forward-looking. He calls us to a future of unity where we do not "have red states and blue states but the united states of america." He is progressive on solving the health care problem. He is idealistic on oppotunities to solve foriegn relations problems. His slogans "Change you can believe in" and "Yes we can" look toward the future and optimism. They also allow people to believe the best about themselves, their neighbors, and the country.
The challenge that awaits Obama as he moves forward in the election is that his personal narrative and the narritive he is sharing lacks foundation for many. Even my more liberal friends tend to tilt there heads and wonder a little bit about whether he has enough of a personal foundation and track record to be trusted. The Obama campaign narrative seems a lot like a movie trailer to those that are skeptical of him. Lots of fun and cool highlights, but you wonder if the show will be as good as adverstised, or whether you have seen all the good parts of the movie in the preview.