Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rod Stewart Is Right: Politics is about passion and why Mitt Romney lacks it

I am pleased to announce that my new book–Politainment: The Ten Rules of Contemporary Politics: A citizens' guide to understanding campaigns and elections–is out. It is available for sale on  in paperback with a Kindle edition forthcoming.

Written in an easy to understand format, the book is for political junkies, journalists and those exploring American politics for the first time. This blog post is an excerpt from the book:

Hear it on the radio (Passion)
Read it in the paper (Passion)
Hear it in the churches (Passion)
See it in the schoolyard (Passion)
—“Passion,” by Rod Stewart

No one is really passionate abut Mitt Romney and it shows. Consider his not-so rally at the Ford Stadium the other day.  It looked like a hollow funeral wake as Romney spoke to a near empty stadium.

But look at his polling numbers and his inability to break through and build a serious lead and finish off the other Republicans.

Romney may or may not be the GOP frontrunner and get the nomination, but he does not inspire voters and that will be his downfall in November if he makes it that far.  What is the problem with Mitt?

In 1980 rock musician Red Stewart had a number one hit with the song “Passion.” Life is about passion, and so is politics.

As Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne once declared (July 12, 2010), “But there is an intangible: Passion counts in politics. It motivates a movement’s most fervent followers but can also carry moderates attracted to those who promise change and profess great certainty about how to achieve it. Barack Obama got himself elected president by understanding this.”

Passion is the key. In 2008 people were passionate about Obama. Passion is what drives people to the ballot, to volunteer, to give. It is the buzz factor. Many candidates are competent, but no one feels passionate about them. Mitt Romney lacks passion, much like a previous Massachusetts governor—Michael Dukakis—who ran for president as a competent technocrat. He lost. He had no charisma and inspired no passion. No one seems really passionate about Romney, thus explaining many of his problems in sealing the deal to secure the GOP nomination and win over many to his side. As I have stated several times, Romney (at least for women) reminds them of their first husband. Conversely, at various times supporters of Bachmann, Perry, and Cain were passionate about them. No question that Ron Paul has passionate supporters.

Passion and charisma are related. Some candidates have a special charisma that inspires others. John F. Kennedy, in truth or legend, is one example; perhaps Ronald Reagan is another. They have the ability, as presidential scholar Richard Neustadt declared in Presidential Power, to persuade others. The essence of presidential power is the power to persuade. One cannot simply order others around—one has to be persuasive and convince people to support your ideas. Neustadt’s book opens with an interesting story. When contemplating General Eisenhower winning the presidential election, Harry Truman said, “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Successful presidential candidates are the same—they have to be able to persuade people to vote for them. But something more is needed. James David Barber wrote about it in his famous book, The Presidential Character.

Presidents bring to office their personality, which helps mold their real power to persuade. Successful presidents such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan inspired passion. Each of them possessed an elusive trait that made their followers excited. This is passion.

Passion may be the trait of a politainer. Obama certainly was one in 2008 in the sense that he became a commodity marketed across many media venues. He was also a rock star. In 2008, I attended two rallies in Minneapolis—one for Hillary Clinton and one for Barack Obama. Clinton’s rally was flat; Obama’s was like a rock concert (held, incidentally, at the Target Center—a frequent forum for real rock concerts). The Obama event was electric; I could feel the passion in his speech, in the crowd, and in all that he did and said. It paid off by driving many voters to the polls and gaining a sweeping victory for him and the Democrats.

Yet the Obama presidency has been devoid of passion. His speeches are mostly flat and uninspiring; they have failed to persuade or inspire. Speeches are long on facts and figures and short on compelling stories and narratives. This lack of passion hurt Democrats in 2010 at the polls, both because their supporters did not feel it and failed to show up and because Republicans had it and did show up. The result was a reversal of fortunes for the two parties in 2010. The challenge for 2012 is about passion—can Obama get his base, and especially the liberals, to be passionate about him? Will passion deliver the swing voters to him? Conversely, will passion bring Republicans out to vote, especially for Romney, in 2012?

Passion needs to be distinguished from anger. Anger is a passion. We hear a lot about the angry voter, and anger seems to be why Democrats did well in 2006 to take back Congress and why the GOP did so well in 2010 too. In 2009, the Tea Party was birthed from anger and perhaps resentment when Rick Santelli of CNBC stated on February 19: “No they’re not, Joe. They’re not like putty in our hands! This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening?” Anger is what drove the Tea Party confrontations against Democrats in town hall meetings in August 2009, and anger seems to be the reason many Tea Party members are upset with Obamacare and the president.

Anger brews demand for political change. The two are related. Anger can be a powerful passion, but it is not the only passion. Patriotism, fear, greed—they too are passions. Some may be more effective than others as political forces at different times in history. But the most important point to realize is that Rod Stewart was correct in saying passion is needed. Without it, political candidates are unsuccessful.

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