Saturday, June 20, 2015

When the political elite come calling

By Richard Barry

I have always enjoyed watching presidential candidates try to sell themselves as ordinary Jills or Joes who just happen to be in a position to run for the top political job in the country. They spend time in diners, maybe sneak a photo-op in a grocery store, stop by a gas station for a group selfie with that family driving through from Omaha because, you know, that will make them seem just like us. In most cases they are senators, governors, wealthy business people, members of prominent families, even brain surgeons. They are not like us, even if a few of them can claim humble origins.

It's a silly game they play, and that we seem to demand they play. Pity the poor bastard who doesn't know the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf a bread, because I am quite certain both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush spend most Saturday afternoons comparison shopping down at the neighbourhood Piggly Wiggly.

I mention this only because of a National Journal piece this week with the headline: "Bush Fights Elitist Image One Gas Station Selfie at a Time."

What's the best way to make voters forget that you're part of a political dynasty? For Jeb Bush, the formula is coming into focus: selfies, handshakes, unhurried conversations, and an all-you-can-ask buffet of questions from voters and reporters alike.

The former Florida governor launched his campaign Monday in Miami by downplaying the advantage of being a Bush. He described the 2016 Republican primaries as "wide open" and said "it's nobody's turn" to become the nominee. In the 48 hours since, Bush has been hustling and highly accessible, showing a sudden energy on the trail that often seemed lacking during his exploratory phase.


He did the same Wednesday morning in Washington, Iowa, mingling for some time with voters at a house party after a lengthy speech and question-and-answer question. After he'd shaken his last hand, Bush held a press availability with a crowd of reporters, answering every question and in some cases requesting follow-ups. When his spokesperson announced the last question, Bush allowed for and answered at least four more, then proceeded to roll down the passenger window of his van and rib the "photo dogs" snapping shots of his entourage climbing into the car.

In fact, I don't think voters are asking candidates to prove they are just like the rest of us because it's not possible. I would argue that voters want and expect the people they vote for to be special, to have very impressive resumes, but not see themselves as too good to ask for a vote, especially in those places where the vast majority spend their time.

Americans don't hate the elite, they want to be the elite. And it is so rare that the rich, famous, or otherwise highly accomplished ever have cause to ask the great unwashed for anything, at least directly, that when they do, how they do it matters.

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  • At this point, people vote almost exclusively based upon party. But I do think there is something to be said for authenticity. I remember the political consultants all told Al Gore not to talk about global warming because no one cared about it. That may have been true (but in general, people are interested in whatever the elites are talking about). But it was something that Al Gore cared about. Maybe he would have won a few extra votes if he had been allowed to talk about one of the things he actually cared about.

    What does Jeb Bush care about? I really don't know. I rather think it is: nothing other than power and doing what dad did. After being president George W Bush took up painting. Why not before? He could have spent his whole life painting. There are thousands (maybe millions) of people the world over who wish they had that option. But apparently, it was critical for Bush to first check off the box, "Most powerful man in the world." Then he could do what he wanted.

    Of course, Kerry loved to windsurf. But rather than being a healthy hobby, the press presented it as somehow bizarre. Clearing brush: that's what a real man likes to do. But Americans would rather have a beer with Bush because, as we learned from Annie Hall, "I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say." And Bush could honestly answer, "And I'm exactly the same way."

    By Blogger Frank Moraes, at 11:12 PM  

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