Most observers of government activity are comfortable dissecting policy positions, and they love to argue about the philosophies that led to the positions. But they tend to forget about the third component of the political triad – the style of the politician. Politics is all about personality – all those giant egos clashing in the desperate need for public approval, all that give and take in pursuit of compromise. So to fully understand how government works, we must understand how the politician approaches it.
Tim Swarens, Indianapolis Star opinion editor, illustrates the point in a column disputing Richard Mourdock’s claim that he lost his U.S. Senate race because of the “liberal media.” Mourdock’s problem “was not that he was a staunch conservative” but that his arrogance and lack of discipline alienated many voters. Incoming Gov. Mike Pence, on the other hand, is just as far to the right as Mourdock but “is an effective evangelist for conservative principles.” Mourdock connects only with “the already converted and often not effectively even then.”
U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, touches on it, too, in an interview with The News-Sentinel’s Kevin Leininger about the “difficult year” Republicans are having on things like gun control and the “fiscal cliff.” The GOP should stick with its conservative brand, he says, but deliver it with a “kinder, more sensitive” message.
Too much can be made of personality, of course – “style over substance” is not very good public policy. If GOP thinks the medicine it’s prescribing would go better with a little sugarcoating, well, it’s still medicine and won’t fool people very long. And if voters get the idea that Republicans are trying to disguise what they stand for, the only possible outcome is to earn a reputation for dishonesty. That won’t help dispel, in Leininger’s words, their media-driven image of Republicans as “emotionally detached, Scrooge-like apologists of the rich and powerful.”
But style matters. There is a time for preaching to the choir and a time for trying to persuade people on the fence. Mourdock didn’t seem to grasp the difference, and his “suffer no fools” attitude made his unwavering principles come off as arrogant extremism. It can be a tricky line to walk – knowing when to compromise and when to avoid compromise because a core belief would be violated. It’s even trickier explaining to constituents how the politician’s principles and the voters’ wishes can be reconciled.
But this isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s been said that politics is a dirty business. That’s not entirely a criticism.