Straight Talk Not Working?

Ron Fournier, AP’s political writer, summarizes last night’s outcome, “Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics.”

The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents’ record and continued to show why he’s the most malleable — and least credible — major presidential candidate.

And it worked.

The man who spoke hard truths to Michigan lost. Of all the reasons John McCain deserved a better result Tuesday night, his gamble on the economy stands out. The Arizona senator had the temerity to tell voters that a candidate who says traditional auto manufacturing jobs “are coming back is either naive or is not talking straight with the people of Michigan and America.”

Instead of pandering, McCain said political leaders must “embrace green technologies,” adding: “That’s the future. That’s what we want.”

It’s hardly shocking that the wonders of creative destruction didn’t appeal to people losing their livelihood. As I’ve said many times, people’s professed appetite for “straight talk” and politicians who “tell it like it is” presumes that said politicians agree with them. The tellers of “hard truths” are only rewarded if their audience agrees that they’re hearing the truth.

But here’s the thing: Romney and McCain are vying for the presidency, a national office won on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s message will, presumably, have more salience outside Michigan whereas Romney will, one would think, be pounded relentlessly if he changes positions elsewhere.

Jason Zengerle is surprised to see such vehemence on the part of the normally restrained Fournier and believes the attack somewhat unfair:

Romney definitely did pander on economic issues in Michigan. But economic issues, given Romney’s business background, are his strongsuit. In other words, his pandering, in this instance, seemed more believable. But it’ll be interesting to see if Romney is so hobbled by his earlier pandering and flip-flopping on social issues that people don’t buy his new focus on the economy–an area where he should have an advantage.

His commenter’s note about Fournier being emblematic of the media “man-crush” on McCain is likely right, too. As I’ve written previously, though, it’s not surprising that the press likes candidates who give them access and let down their guard. Further, because they follow the ins-and-outs of the race on a daily basis, they’re likely more aware of “pandering” and inconsistency than the average voter. Them’s the breaks, though.

For his part, Fournier is content to believe “authenticity” will win out in the end.

This still looks to be an authenticity election. First, voters are tired of being spun by politicians who aren’t getting their jobs done. From the Vietnam War and Watergate to the Iraq war and Katrina, politicians have failed the people they presume to lead, and often lied about it to boot.

Will Bunch scoffs at the notion:

An authenticity election? To have one of these, don’t you need some authentic candidates, or at least one, anyway? There’s no REAL “straight talker” out there. The GOP field is larded with moderates who became born-again social conservatives when the 2008 primary schedule was released, with Mike “Jesus is my Constitution” Huckabee and Ron “I didn’t write my racist newsletter” Paul tossed in the mix. As for McCain, you can’t be a “straight talker” unless it’s 100 percent of the time — you can’t turn it on and off like a spigot.

On the Democratic side, you have a candidate whose campaign is actually run by a pollster and a candidate who “evolved” to the left over the 2000s pretty much the same way that Romney evolved to the right. Barack Obama is a tad better, but even he tends to focus on lofty rhetoric instead of the “authentic” tough choices he’d make in the White House.

The only truly “authentic” candidates are those who either know they can’t win and thus have the luxury of saying what’s on their mind or those too stupid for elective office. There are, however, degrees. While the “flip-flopper” charge has been thrown around so much that it hardly has any sting left in it, it certainly applies to Romney more than most.

There have been candidates who’ve managed to prove the adage that “once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” While Romney’s slick, though, he’s no Bill Clinton. My guess is he doesn’t pull it off over the long haul of the campaign.

McCain’s willing to speak his mind even knowing it’ll hurt him with a particular audience to a degree greater than any serious presidential candidate I can recall. His “truths,” though, are unpopular with a large part of the Republican base. He’ll need more than “authenticity,” then, if he’s to win.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dantheman says:

    Has there ever been a candidate who won telling people what they don’t want to hear? From Mondale to Tsongas to Perot, I can think of many who have went down to defeat that way, but none who succeeded.

  2. Larry Gunderman says:

    Fournier is a reporter? Oh, for Al AP. I understand. For a minute I thought his piece came right out of the DNC. That is what it sounds like. The AP has for a long time been co opted by liberal snits who slant the “news” to fit their political views. And Fournier thinks Romney killed authenticity? Gimme a break.
    If he thinks Romney was pandering, I wonder what he thinks of the democrats and their proposed giveaway programs. Pathetic pandering, but I guess Fournier has been living in a cave.
    What a nitwit column.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    This one struck me, too, James. A little too post-modern.

  4. DavidL says:

    I too question Mitt Romney’s message. It was pandering. However, unlike Fournier, I fail to see where Romeny previaled over an authentic candidate.

    John McCain calls it personal attack if you ask him to explain his record, pro-amensty, anti-tac cut, anti-business, pro New York Times. Gand of Fouteen. McCain used Joe Lieberman to recruit democrats and independents to vote in republican primaray and then denied it. No straight talk from McCain.

    Mike Huckabee was pro-legal immigration, now he against it. Raises taxes some half billion dollars, but claims to be tax cutter. Inane idea to amend Constitution to reflect God’s values, as it that could ever be defined, much less ratified.

    Ron Paul, hixtorical revisionist, moonbat and flake.

    No authentics here.

  5. Christopher says:

    McCain is an idiot. People want green cars? Who says? Only well off liberals buy the darn things. They are economically a disaster, aren’t worth the price, and value wise are a rip off.

    I guess that guy doesn’t like Romney because-well, he doesn’t like Romney! Too bad journalists can’t just be journalists and report.