It's a powerful personal story: A teenage single mother struggles to care for herself and her child, living in a trailer park. She then puts herself through Harvard Law School and ends up being elected to the Texas state legislature. Trouble is, that's not exactly what happened to Wendy Davis, a Democrat running for governor of the Lone Star State.
It wasn't a total lie – the basic thrust of her story is true. But she was 21, not 19, when she as divorced. She lived in a trailer for only a few months before moving to an apartment with her daughter. And her husband helped put her through school – it was not all due to scholarships and student loans.
Should it matter? It will certainly be seized on by her political opponents (and in fact, already has been). And there are those who may think it will derail her candidacy.
Some people thought the same thing when evidence emerged that Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio's compelling personal story didn't happen exactly as he had described it. Rubio, another relative newcomer to the national political stage and a potential candidate for president, told a moving story about his parents being exiles from communist Cuba. It turns out that Rubio's parents came to the U.S. and were given permanent residence status some two and a half years before Castro seized power. Should that disqualify Rubio?
The problem here isn't that either politician is a liar – Rubio may well have been told a certain family history while he was growing up, and his credentials as an anti-Castro, Cuban-American are certainly not in question. And Davis clearly has an inspirational bootstraps-style story to tell. In both cases, the respective appeals of the candidates aren't reliant on such detail. Rubio is a tea party conservative who might be able to draw Latinos voters over to the GOP column. Davis made her national name by attempting to filibuster an anti-abortion bill in the state legislature. How long Davis was in a trailer park, or how, exactly, Rubio's parents came from Cuba, are both fairly irrelevant details.
The problem for both is that when the public knows little about a candidate, the personal story is defining. And when someone considers high office (such as governor or president) and there is not a lengthy legislative record to examine, the personal details become more important. Such mishaps can indeed disqualify a candidate if he or she completely fabricates a tale of overcoming adversity, but that is not the case with either Rubio or Davis. And Rubio is now far better known for his own participation in a filibuster to keep the government from re-opening; the Castro regime-escape details aren't even a topic of conversation anymore.
Davis may have a harder time, but it's not because she's been exposed as some kind of serial fabricator. It's because she's a Democrat running for governor in a state that is still very Republican. She might have a better chance in four or eight years, when the changing demographics of Texas make the state a bit more competitive for Democrats, but given her political stardom after her own filibuster, she pretty much had to strike this year. She may well not win the governorship, but it won't have anything to do with how much time she lived in a trailer park.