The Problem with Political Plowshares

March 20, 2013

"He was warm, funny, self-deprecating — all the things that as a candidate he was not." That's how Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson described Mitt Romney's speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference this week. It's the sort of line spoken about almost every failed presidential candidate right after they lose.

Usually, we hear that description of the candidate's concession speech on election night. The loser is gracious, funny, and relaxed; everything the talking heads wanted him to be during the campaign. It's often said that "if only" he had found this more likable side of himself earlier, he might have won.

What that repeated analysis ignores is that everyone is more likable when they're not trying to get something from you, or win a competition. During a campaign, a candidate needs to attack, differentiate, demand, fire-up his* base, and generally do unlikable things. It's a lot harder to be amiable and relaxed when you're struggling to make news or catch up in the polls.

Of course, the best candidates manage to be likable at the same time they're doing all that rhetorical heavy lifting, but those  office-seekers don’t tend to make as many concession speeches. The more successful politicians have a natural ability to criticize without being harsh and self-promote without being irritating or obnoxious. 

But for the candidates who aren't naturally gifted at it -- John McCain, for instance, had a tendency to sound nasty when he criticized Obama -- the whole experience is harder. They have to work at it to seem personable, and they generally don't do it well. So when the moment comes that they no longer have to sell themselves -- when the whole thing is over -- they are more relaxed and at-ease.

Why don't they just act like that during the campaign? Well, a candidate who never criticizes his rival and avoids difficult topics would make little headway with voters. He'd never get to make his point forcefully, raise issues in ways advantageous to his cause, or give voters any reason to reject his opponent. Like pacifism, you can be a courteous and polite politician as long as your opponent agrees to be the same. Plowshares are great unless the other guy still has a sword.

*I’ve used “his” throughout for convenience. This all, of course, applies to women -- though there are certainly differences between what the public expects from male and female candidates. 

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