Is Pandering the Key to Election Success?

The fund-raiser was unremarkable, by L.A. standards. Under enormous chandeliers at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, wealthy donors mingled with showbiz types (Dennis Quaid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Beals) and ate endive spears stuffed with brie. Couples willing to donate $28,500 got to dine beforehand with the candidate, Barack Obama, who gave his usual stump speech and mocked his opponent, John McCain, for believing "that a bunch of oil rigs along the California coast was a good idea." (McCain had just recommended that states be allowed to opt out of the federal ban on offshore drilling.) This last zinger got a roar from the crowd, not a few of whom own shorefront properties in places like Malibu and Santa Barbara.

Raise some big bucks, ridicule your opponent, pander to the locals. Nothing unusual about that for a politician. But wait—wasn't this the candidate who was going to change politics as usual? Obama's decision to abandon the public financing system for the general election is a kind of change, but not what most voters had in mind when they voted for him in the primaries. By forgoing federal funding (and abandoning a pledge to first discuss the matter with his opponent), Obama will likely be able to outspend McCain, who is staying within the limits, by about four to one. Obama called the campaign-finance system "broken" and insists that he relies on small donors. But small donations to the Obama campaign have slackened, and in Los Angeles, Obama was able to take advantage of a loophole that allows him to circumvent the maximum individual donation ($2,300) by raising money for the Democratic Party. (McCain, who is staying in the system partly because he can't raise as much money as Obama, is exploiting the same loophole.)

Since he clinched the nomination, Obama has become a fairly traditional presidential candidate, shoring up the party base by telling interest groups what they want to hear. With polls showing a weakness with Jewish voters in Florida, a key swing state, Obama recently made a get-tough-with-Iran show of support for Israel before AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. To be sure, his show of devotion to Israel was no more fervent than John McCain's. McCain, too, has become an uncharacteristically cautious pol of late. The candidate who once loved to riff on the record for hours with reporters can now be seen reading his talking points from index cards. Just before he secured the GOP nomination in March, McCain seemed wistful about the free-wheeling old days. Appearing before reporters, flanked by two handlers, McCain said, "I think they think I'm going to say something I shouldn't." He raised his eyebrows as though he were a rebellious teenager talking about his overly strict parents.

Neither Obama nor McCain seems to enjoy the role of political hack. McCain has a slightly pained or hangdog look when he starts trying to appease the Republican right. Obama gets testy or huffy when reporters draw attention to his expediency. Last week, after the L.A. fund-raiser, a reporter asked him why he had abandoned the federal finance system. "Well, we talked about this, I think in Florida, I answered almost exactly the same question," he said in an exasperated tone, as if a candidate should never have to answer the same question twice over several days. "So, I will say it again," he said, and launched wearily into an elaborate and not altogether candid speech about his reliance on small donors.

The 2008 election was supposed to be different. McCain and Obama were the refreshing outsiders, the antipoliticians who fulfilled the public's desire for change. McCain had the bracing idea of putting on a road show with his rival this summer—standing on the same stage to debate the great issues, no reporters to ask canned questions. McCain wanted to debate every week, but Obama—wary of McCain's skills in informal "town hall" settings—suggested only two debates. The negotiations collapsed in accusations of bad faith.

It may be inevitable that presidential candidates become less free-spirited as they enter the general election. "When you get to the general, every huckster and ad man and consultant wants in," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "And the consultants always push you to the lowest common denominator … Candidates are afraid to abandon the conventional wisdom of consultants, that the way to win is to be handled, controlled, scrubbed of all your rough edges."

Candidates who speak their mind often regret it. A casual bit of frankness can be hung around a candidate's neck like a badge of shame. Many months ago, McCain remarked, honestly, that he didn't know much about economics. As the economy heads south, he is routinely reminded of his candor. With reason, the candidates blame the press for playing gotcha. Reporters (including this one) are hypocrites. They implore candidates to speak their mind—and then punish them for committing "gaffes," defined by columnist Michael Kinsley as "when a politician tells the truth." The press lives for conflict, and technology has merely quickened the game. Before YouTube and the Internet, candidates could get away with saying one thing at a private fund-raiser and another at a public speech. No longer, as Obama discovered when, at a session supposedly closed to the press, he told some San Francisco donors that the working-class voters of Pennsylvania are "bitter" and "cling" to God and guns. (In the audience was a "citizen journalist" with a tape recorder.) Campaigns now all have "war rooms" primed for "rapid response." Obama, who once seemed to try to float above the fray, was burned by his slow response to the Reverend Wright flap. His campaign now has a Web site called to set the record straight. Sen. John Kerry, in an appearance with Obama this spring, counseled that his campaign hadn't fought back aggressively enough against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

But it's possible to overlearn the lessons of the Swift Boat attack. In the end, Kerry did not lose because he had been Swift-Boated, but because, in the eyes of many voters, he seemed like a phony. "He was so handled that he looked completely scripted and canned, never seemed to be talking from his heart," says Lichtman. The campaigns are perfectly aware that the candidate needs to appear authentic to voters, and that there is a risk of getting caught up in petty name-calling. "I think this is a campaign dance," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. "It's the beginning of the silly season. But we have to make sure that we continue to talk about and focus on the issues that are important to people and not get caught up in the back-and-forth."

So here's an issue that matters: energy independence. Outside of war, democracies are notoriously poor at sacrificing in the short term for long-term gain. Yet that is precisely what must happen if America is to begin to wean itself from foreign oil. Obama actually has a long-term plan that could move the country toward energy independence and (though he downplays it) require some sacrifice. But for the last week, he has mostly engaged in taking potshots at McCain, who has been proposing new (and maybe gimmicky) ideas, like a $300 million reward for a cheaper and more efficient car battery. Offshore drilling is not the best energy plan; there are surely better ideas. But the only successful plan will be based on trade-offs and compromise. It is foolish to remove offshore drilling from the bargaining table because that would kill the dealmaking before it could even begin. Explaining this would require a straightforward and painful discussion of the sacrifices and uncertainties needed to face a tremendous challenge. Voters might even appreciate the honesty.