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Columns / GWEN'S TAKE

Taking the 2012 Authenticity Test

photo of Gwen Ifill
February 24, 2012

PHOENIX -- If there is one reliable source of applause to be found along the Republican primary trail this year, it is ignited by candidates who boast of being able to speak without a teleprompter.

The speech-delivery device used by presidents, candidates, dinner emcees and, yes, television news anchors, has become an object of extended mockery wherever Republican politics is practiced. (Full disclosure: I use them on almost a daily basis. I love them.)

This does not mean that the GOP candidates do not use teleprompters. They do, although sparingly. Still, the use of these devices has morphed into another of the endless series of codes that have come to define the 2012 GOP primary campaign.


President Obama on the campaign trail (CNN)

In this case, as in so many others, it is an authenticity test. President Obama, for frankly mysterious reasons, has acquired a reputation in some circles as a man incapable of delivering a speech without a mechanical crutch. The mystery is that I can't recall a president in the modern age who has delivered any major speech off the cuff. Smooth, fluid delivery has become the coin of the realm in the television age.

But when I asked voters at a Rick Santorum event here this week what they liked best about a lunchtime speech he delivered without notes, they immediately volunteered how nice it was that he spoke without a teleprompter.

It was refreshing, one woman said. It was real, said another. But without prompting -- from me, not a machine -- neither could elaborate on the substance of Santorum’s remarks.

This confirmed for me a theory I have long held about politics. To convince people to vote for you, you must first persuade them to believe you.

But the day after I witnessed Santorum wow the crowd at the Maricopa County Lincoln Day luncheon with this display of authenticity, he stumbled into the thicket himself.

It occurred when he was asked to justify actions he took while in Congress that veered from the strict conservatism he espouses now. He admitted to a closely watching debate audience that he had once supported Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, and that he voted for the No Child Left Behind education law, not because he supported it, but because he was persuaded to "take one for the team." He used variations of that theme to explain his support of funneling earmarked spending to his home state of Pennsylvania.

It is, of course, not uncommon for elected officials to endorse their fellow state seatmate, bring home the bacon, or cast votes they don't like. But it was the very business-as-usual quality of these transactions that now challenges Santorum's outsider claims.

Mitt Romney gleefully jumped on Santorum's moment of candor the next morning during a speech before the anti-union Associated Builders & Contractors meeting in Phoenix. "He talked about this as taking one for the team,'" Romney taunted. "I wonder whose team he was taking it for?"

The goal here was not only to paint Santorum as the insider he claims not to be but also to raise the specter of inauthenticity. Romney also never tires of reminding voters that Santorum actually endorsed him four years ago.

The trap is this. Americans say they want their politicians to work together across party lines. Yet anyone who cuts a deal for what he or she perceives to be the greater good can immediately be branded as unreliable, inconsistent, inauthentic.

Few successful politicians can really maneuver their way around this. One of the reasons Romney has had such struggles this primary season is that one candidate after another has raised the same question about him -- that he is not a true conservative. When Romney tried to bat that label away during a speech to a conservative political action group by calling himself "severely" conservative, he was immediately and severely mocked.

This affliction is not limited to Republicans. Voters in the 1992 primaries seemed more immediately troubled by Bill Clinton's shifting explanations about how he avoided the draft than by the lurid and ultimately confirmed allegations of his marital infidelity. John Kerry, the party's 2004 nominee, was felled in part by unproven accusations that he was not the Vietnam War hero he indeed was.

I could go on. John McCain could not remember the number of homes he owned. George H.W. Bush appeared not to remember the price of milk or to have been familiar with a supermarket scanner. Hillary Rodham Clinton disdained the idea that she should have sat home and baked cookies. All of these real and imagined missteps dogged these candidates for years.

It should be noted that consistency is not always the same thing as authenticity. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who stands out in the GOP field for his opposition to all wars and most government spending, is as consistent as they come. In fact, that is the word he used to describe himself during a one-word exercise CNN moderator John King used during the Wednesday debate. But he has yet to win a single state primary or caucus.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the Arizona GOP Debate (CNN)

To be authentic also means that people believe you are more like them than different. That's what Santorum was reaching for when he brought his wife and children onstage this week and declared that a president should have more children than vacation homes. (The only problem with that formula is that President Obama -- and Mitt Romney in fact --actually do meet that test. John McCain did not.)

Being a regular guy is what the president does when he sings; what Newt Gingrich does when he talks about being a 68-year-old grandfather; and what Romney tries to evoke when he attempts to paint patriotic word images by reciting verses from "America the Beautiful."

This is all well and good, if not also patently transparent to professional skeptics like me. But since no amount of finger-pointing over who is more or less real will create jobs, revive the housing market, or stop Iran or North Korea from creating foreign-policy mayhem, perhaps it's time to hit the reset button when it comes to deciding what authenticity really means.

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