In January—a political lifetime ago—there were two presidential candidates who scored above the rest on the matter of authenticity: Barack Obama and John McCain. Indeed, 65 percent of Democrats thought that Obama says "what he believes most of the time," and 56 percent of Republicans felt the same way about McCain. Their truth-teller reputations have served them well in a year in which the campaign cliché is "change."
Ah, but now comes the general election—the time when all good candidates decide to, um, recalibrate. So what about Obama's early devotion to the public financing of campaigns? Never mind. That was before he knew he could raise $200 million without breaking a sweat. And what about McCain's longtime opposition to offshore drilling? Never mind. That was before $4-a-gallon gasoline.
Sure, both men have their obvious reasons. Obama, sometimes called not tough enough, made a hardball political decision to raise gobs of money to win. And McCain changed his mind on offshore drilling, which is allowed—although he could have just said so, in keeping with his maverick tell-it-like-it-is persona. But McCain didn't. And Obama was even worse, trying to camouflage his tactical money decision as somehow motivated by a higher-minded devotion to his small donors. With neither candidate fessing up, each began to (accurately) accuse the other of politics as usual. Obama denounced McCain's energy solutions as poll-driven, "meaningless gimmicks." The McCain campaign labeled Obama's financing choice as the mark of "just another typical politician." And so it goes, from the two men whom voters tagged as better than all the rest.
That's precisely the problem. These are the two candidates who were supposed to engage in constructive debate, take their show on the road, highlight their substantive differences, do Lincoln-Douglas proud. Instead, they're Paris and Nicole—only they were never best friends. McCain proposes a long series of town-hall debates; Obama declines, through aides. And it's not as if the long-distance exchanges between the candidates and their surrogates are either uplifting or informative. In the serious debate over energy, for instance, the McCain camp has taken to calling Obama "Dr. No." That's productive.
This, you may notice, is the opposite of change. And it is dangerous for both candidates, each of whom has set himself up as the next best thing in politics: Mr. Straight Talk vs. Mr. Change. In a way, McCain may have less to lose because the public already sees him as unpredictable. So when he flips his positions to conform with GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts (he now supports) and immigration (build the fence first), it doesn't seem so odd that he then tacks to the middle on global warming or panders to frustrated motorists on offshore drilling. It's part of the "don't pigeonhole me" trademark, which has its appeal to independent voters. McCain's inconsistency fits the brand, so voters may forgive him.
Idealism. For Obama, it's trickier. As he tries to tack to the middle—supporting, for instance, the congressional overhaul of the domestic spying law—his liberal pals fret. And what about those ardent declarations during the hotly contested primaries in battleground and rust belt states that trade agreements like NAFTA were "devastating"? That was then. The rhetoric may have gotten a tad "overheated and amplified," he recently told Fortune magazine. Recall that when Obama's economic adviser was charged with virtually saying the same thing during the heat of the Ohio primary, he became a pariah. Now it's clear that the adviser certainly understood his candidate. And suddenly, Obama's idealism seems a lot less about ideas and a lot more about winning. Telling the truth about what you really believe is a virtue, not a fault. But the real danger here is that Obama will morph into someone who looks as if he doesn't believe in anything other than his own success.
Of course, a certain amount of pander, and shifting, is to be expected in a general election campaign in which candidates try to become all-purpose vessels. Yet, in this campaign, it's not been so easy. The two candidates have told us they're above all that, and anything they do to crack their truth-telling templates is risky. The last thing these "authentic" candidates want is for voters to ask: Is this the man I thought he was? Because once the question is asked, it's already answered.