Missing: The straight-talking maverick
The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column on October 7, 2011:
This Republican presidential field isn’t missing Chris Christie or the next knight riding a white horse. It lacks a type of candidate: the maverick.
The maverick doesn’t try to win over every primary voter. He doesn’t really want to win over every voter. He’s disgusted by the pandering to groups he’s expected to do, so most of the time he refuses to play along. He relishes telling voters things they don’t want to hear. If the base of his party is wrong on some issue, he’s willing to say so. If that costs him votes, so be it.
This, of course, is the basic formula John McCain used to win the New Hampshire primary not once, but twice. McCain got 49 percent of the vote in 2000 and 37 percent in 2008. You’d think that one of this year’s candidates not named Mitt Romney might look at McCain’s success and think, maybe I should give that approach a try.
Instead, we’ve seen too much orthodoxy and not enough telling of inconvenient truths. Poll-driven candidates play it safe, afraid to say anything that might cost them the vote of a single primary voter. There’s been a shortage of straight talk at a time when voters may be more open to candidates who treat them like adults than they’ve ever been.
When most candidates are asked to do something they’d rather not, or to take a popular position that is less than authentically held, they shrug their shoulders and rationalize, “Well, if that’s what it takes to win…”
The maverick isn’t willing to do that. He’d rather lose than compromise his integrity. Not only can being a maverick help a candidate live with himself, it can be good politics. The maverick knows that by selectively picking fights with the base of his party, he’s standing out from a crowded field and appealing to a different segment of voters. Newton’s Third Law of physics applies to politics, too: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
One of the secrets to McCain’s success in New Hampshire was his willingness to sacrifice one vote to gain other votes. In town meetings, McCain would comb his audience for a foil, looking for someone with whom he could disagree on some issue. Once found, McCain would essentially tell that voter not to vote for him. What McCain was really doing was showing the other 99 voters in the room that he wasn’t willing to pander, that he wasn’t going to be all things to all voters, that they could count on him to act with the independence he knew most voters valued over rigid partisanship.
When a recent debate audience booed a soldier who happens to be gay, a maverick might have started his answer with, “Thank you for your service.”
When an earlier debate audience erupted in bloodlusty whoops and hollers at the mention of capital punishment, a maverick might have said, “I believe in justice being served, but the death penalty is not something a civil society celebrates in that way.”
When other members of a debate audience yelled out that society should let a sick person who is uninsured die, a maverick might have responded quietly, “I don’t think you’d say that if the patient were your child. I’m not willing to stand by and watch someone else’s daughter die just because she’s uninsured.”
Don’t look for Risk Averse Romney to speak up in such situations. The frontrunner has been too busy using Social Security and immigration to drive wedges between his rivals and the base. Romney told the New Hampshire Union Leader this week that he wouldn’t “scold” a vocal audience even when he thinks it’s wrong. That’s disappointing.
Rick Perry is trying to outflank Romney to the right, so he can’t become the maverick. Jon Huntsman could become the McCain-style maverick but so far Huntsman has cautiously pulled his punches. Newt Gingrich has been the happy contrarian in debates but his campaign seems to exist only in electronic form, on cable television and online, unable to survive outside the lab.
Stop playing it so safe, guys. You’re better than this, and the country needs more.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.