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   What the Democrats Need to Accept


What the Democrats Need to Accept

by Jesse Fask

Ehrlich comes across on television and radio with a soothing regional accent—like your uncle or your grocer or your mailman. Someone you trust. Townsend gets on stage, stumbles over words and looks uncomfortable. It’s no surprise who won.
It’s been thoroughly debated why the Democrats were so soundly defeated in this November’s mid-term election. I watched CNN on Election Night, where an embarrassed James Carville sat with a trash can on his head at the round table discussion. Some experts say that there was no clear message by the Democrats, but I feel there was a more important factor in play: the politics of personality.

Overall, the majority of Americans love George W. Bush, and although many liberals say they do not know why this is so, it is not difficult to understand.

When the election results on CNN began to become redundant, I switched channels to watch the HBO documentary, “Travels with George.” This was billed as a light-hearted look at the Bush campaign for the presidency in 2000. What it showed was a charismatic and at times hilarious Dub-ya. His campaign plane was like a big party, and Bush was the life of that party. I watched Bush charm the director of this film, a liberal democrat, and it all made sense.

In the days after the election most of the evidence as to why the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress pointed to Bush’s marathon campaign through swing states in the last days before Election Day. This is what swung the votes, not the economy, not the war with Iraq. Bush’s personality (at least, as it’s portrayed to the public) and how he makes people feel.

I am currently enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, studying to be a psychotherapist. I have at times tried to look at psychotherapy scientifically, looking at outcome studies, trying to discern what theories work with what disorders and so forth.

However, the evidence shows what theory you use in therapy is largely irrelevant. Basically, what is important is your relationship with your client. In determining whether a client improves in psychotherapy, eighty-five percent of the reason for improved outcomes has to do with client-therapist relations. Only fifteen percent has to do with how much of the theory you understand and how you use the theories that you read. Basically, if your patient likes you, they are much more likely to get better.

There is even evidence that the most significant reason why patients get better from medical treatment is the physician-patient relationship. If the patient likes his/her doctor, then the pill or treatment that they are given is much more likely to be effective.

I was a crisis worker in a group home for a number of years. In our training for treating people in crisis, what is stressed is not what you say but how you say it. People in crisis—and, I believe, people in general—are more interested in how you look when you say something, rather than what you actually say.

I think this is the main reason Bob Ehrlich was elected Maryland Governor over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, despite the fact that this state has twice as many Democrats as Republicans. What’s the main reason Ehrlich won? I think it’s because Ehrlich comes across on television and radio with a soothing regional accent—like your uncle or your grocer or your mailman. Someone you trust. Townsend gets on stage, stumbles over words and looks uncomfortable. So even though two-thirds of Marylanders agree with Townsend’s politics over Ehrlich’s, it’s how Ehrlich came across to the people—and how KKT didn’t—that got Ehrlich elected.

Democrats need to accept these realities. They need to send charming Clinton-esque candidates into campaigns. There is no doubt in my mind that Martin O’Malley would have destroyed Ehrlich in the Governor’s race, just because of his personality and how people perceive him.

I believe that it is human nature to be drawn to the “cool” and the charismatic over substance and issues. And the two do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Personality is becoming more and more important as candidates are more visible than ever on round-the-clock cable news channels. Eighty years ago, candidates were just black and white pictures in the newspaper. Personality was less important. It became more important with the invention of radio. When people first heard Franklin Roosevelt’s voice during the throes of the Depression, for example, it made them feel confident that things would get better.

Presidents like Reagan and Clinton follow this model, but these days the GOP seems much more aware of what is becoming more and more obvious. The most important thing in a candidate today is personality and his or her perceived relationship with the individual voter. And I don’t necessarily think that is a sad thing. It’s what the Democrats need to accept.

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This story was published on December 4, 2002.
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