Just in time for tonight’s contests in Alabama and Mississippi, Mitt Romney has discovered his love of “cheesy grits,” y’all.
How shocked we all are or, at least how shocked we pretend to be, when we read, see or hear reports of pandering by political candidates. We seem even more shocked when presidential candidates appear to pander to the public. After all, what is a presidential candidate supposed to do? Tell the truth? Absolutely not.
The Harvard-educated billionaire’s gestures inspired much mocking in the press, but the real sin would have been to alienate Southern voters by failing to pander. The Harvard-educated millionaire may not be a redneck, but the least Southerners expect is that he’ll go through the food and language rituals politicians have always endured.
If you want to get elected, truth comes last. Keeping a straight face and saying what the public wants to hear is the requirement. Truth can make you famous for a moment by a select few who appreciate and remember campaigns fought hard and lost. To the loser go the spoils of principle, to the winner the spoils of power.
Studies by political scientists—yes even those at Harvard—show that politicians generally follow public opinion. Those who don’t frequently find their careers curtailed by an unhappy public that feels deceived. Polls are taken to find out what the public is thinking and to then act in a way the public will find enchanting. When a presidential candidate says something memorable like “I feel your pain,” voters will stop for a moment as their hearts skip a beat and their eyes focus on a politician finally meeting voter emotion.
Of late, opponents and reporters have called Romney a panderer and worse. Michigan-born Mitt—whose fortune was made the new-fashioned way, by taking apart companies and selling off the parts while discarding the humans—has run from the progressive health-care-reform plan he helped enact while running the Bay State. His anti-choice credentials—critical to the religious right—have swayed to and fro like the autumn leaves in New England. He moves from conservative to moderate and back like a boxer ducking jabs. And for these acts of political survival he is attacked.
But did Bill Clinton really feel your pain? When you read George Bush’s lips, did he really mean no new taxes? How about the JFK-Nixon debates? Was it really about islands named Quemoy and Matsu or the missile gap? Or were the candidates pandering to a public engaged in Cold War fears? All panderers are not equally successful.
Nixon fared better when he ran again in 1968 pandering to a public less worried about communists than about street muggings and riots in inner-city neighborhoods. The slogan said "Nixon’s the One.” And he was.
Further back we see politicians at every level saying what the public wanted to hear and then doing what politicians usually do: muddle through with hopes that few in the electorate wise up.
Herbert Hoover forgot to pander and the public forgot him in favor of FDR, the creator of a program a minute to end the Depression, most of which the courts found unconstitutional. To return the favor, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. It was like saying, "Democracy be damned. Full speed New Deal ahead.”
The difference today is the Internet. There are no secrets. You do it in Alabama, everyone in New York, California, and all points in between knows. And they know in seconds. Reporters struggling to fill the gaping maw of the endless news cycle keep writing and rewriting and then their small stories are put through the ringer of cable news.
Most often candidates say and do what they think the voters want to hear and know. It is how our democracy works. There are few profiles in courage, but plenty of panderers.
The polls tell politicians what to say and how, and even when. Read the candidate’s lips: more new pandering. And if you find it offensive, you will feel their pain.