Politics and the Role of a Lifetime

This piece of mine was published today in the Indian Express.

This year’s Oscars were quite good, weren’t they? For a change, some excellent films got nominated and actually won, with directors taking risks and actors pulling off difficult roles. But the finest acting, the most elaborately constructed show business, was taking place in other parts of America, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain hit the campaign trail.

The most important political skill of all is acting. Politics is not about public service, as some people naively think, but about power. All of us lust for power to varying degrees, but politicians are more driven by it than others, by the very nature of their chosen calling. In a democracy, the only way to get power is by appealing to others, to pretend to be what they would like to see in a leader. This requires acting of the highest standards.

I don’t mean that all politicians are necessarily insincere. But there is deception at the heart of the political process, for politicians have to pretend that they want to serve the people, while what they really want is to rule them. Also, the right course of action may not always be the popular one, and to get into a position to do the right thing, politicians have to promise to do the popular thing first. How politicians project themselves in public can never, over the course of a career, be the same as who they truly are.

The American presidential elections are particularly demanding for the thespians who choose to stand. First, in the primaries, they have to appeal to the extreme left and right of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively; then, if they win their party’s nomination, they have to swing to the centre in the main election to appeal to independent voters. Throughout this process, they have to make sure that the roles they adopt don’t clash with things they might have done in the past — their whole lives become, retrospectively, an audition.

There are three ways of failing in a political campaign. One, the block of voters that you choose to appeal to may not be influential enough to win the elections for you. (Think Mike Huckabee, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.) Two, you may not act well enough — or someone may play a part that appeals more to the voters you are targeting. (Fred Thompson and John Edwards.) Three, you may not suit the role you choose to play, as it may be inconsistent with your past actions, and would thus lose credibility. (Mitt Romney.)

The survivors at this stage of the elections are politicians who happened to make the right choices, and played their parts exceedingly well. John McCain, a few months ago, seemed to have chosen the wrong strategy. The persona and positions he chose would appeal to independents in the main elections, but seemed certain to hurt him in the primaries. He upset the conservative base of the Republican Party with his positions on immigration and torture. He was lucky that the other candidates were flawed in different ways, and a credible Reaganite conservative never emerged. Also, McCain’s refusal to pander earned him the reputation of being a man of principle and character, which will help him in November.

Barack Obama is now the favourite for the Democratic nomination after a brilliant campaign. He knew that he could not out-wonk Hillary Clinton on issues, so he focussed on persona. His background made him an embodiment of the American Dream, and he projected himself as someone who would transcend the divisive, partisan politics of the last few years. A country tired of political bickering took to him. Obama’s oratory is outstanding, and his consistent refusal to engage in the dirty, negative tactics that typify presidential elections has earned him respect.

Obama also fired up the base with populist rhetoric and leftist policy proposals that had only minor differences with Clinton. She couldn’t take him on when it came to issues, so she projected herself as an experienced warrior, in contrast with the callow Obama. He pointed to her support of the Iraq war, arguing that she might have experience, but he had consistently showed better judgment. He made her seem old, the kind of establishment figure the country was tired of.

If Obama wins the nomination, he may not find the main elections quite so easy. McCain will be shrewd enough to know that he can’t win in a battle of personalities, so he’ll divert attention to the issues. Having pandered to the base with template leftism, Obama will have to convince independent voters at the centre that he is their man. He is such a good performer that he might just pull it off.

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