Just Breathe: How Good Candidates Can Overcome Bad Moments
I can’t believe he/she said that!
After last night’s CNN Town-Hall-a-palooza, there seems to be a sense of agony amongst certain circles as to how various candidates responded to the questions that were asked. As someone who has a presidential campaign under his belt, allow me to share some wisdom to the masses and my wisdom is centered in one important, central idea:
Your candidate of choice will fuck up.
Repeatedly. They will fuck up on the national stage. They will fuck up at a 20-person house party in Eastbumfuck, Iowa. They will fuck up at a diner, eating or drinking a local delicacy in a way that defies belief and common sense. They will share a personal story that is entirely too personal. They will trip and/or stumble leaving a stage/bus/airplane/hotel and there inevitably WILL be a camera crew there to witness it and broadcast it to the world. They will mix up and mispronounce words and will miscount something that every contestant on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? would be able to do. They will appear in public and forget an obvious accessory such as glasses, a folder, a briefcase, or an overcoat. They will incorrectly identify where they are, not just the town or city but sometimes the state entirely. They will do all this while being stalked nonstop by a ruthless American press corps that will gleefully comb through a 15-page speech to find the 1 or 2 factual errors which will then become the lede in their next day’s column. They will do all this, will address it, will vow to fix it, and then will fuck up fantastically the very next day in a way you didn’t even think was possible.
In other words, your candidate of choice will not run anywhere near a perfect campaign.
Last night we saw a televised town hall of roughly 1/4 of the Democratic nominees for president. Each had their shining moments. Each had their struggles. For the first time, they faced an audience of all young people who asked detailed, policy-driven questions under the glare of the national spotlight. This wasn’t some house party. This wasn’t some event at a church. This wasn’t even an extended interview with Rachel Maddow. This was the big leagues with CNN hosts pressing candidates on their non-answers and forcing them to defend their words and their positions. It was an event designed to see how the candidates would perform under pressure and some undoubtedly cracked under the glaring lights.
But the art of politics is about growing and evolving. Barack Obama got trounced in his first run for congress in 2000 but he used the experience to go back to the drawing board and improve himself as a candidate. Whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is will have his or her share of screw ups. Some candidates will simply double down on their campaign style and rhetoric and ignore the errors that they made. That is a choice for them to make. Other candidates will take a critical look at themselves and their performance and will adjust accordingly. Ultimately, the candidate that best recovers from their screw ups and who minimizes future ones will be the one who emerges as the nominee. In 2008, Barack Obama ran the greatest grassroots campaign of all-time and he did it because he consistently minimized any potential errors on the campaign trail and immediately addressed them when they actually came up. His swift response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy is a prime example of a presidential candidate immediately extinguishing a cooking fire that had the potential to burn the whole house down.
It’s early. Our candidates of choice are 1-4 months into what, for the vast majority of them, is their first national campaign. It should speak volumes that the person who consistently polls highest is “gaffe machine” Joe Biden. But Biden, the career politician, has developed ways to overcome his mistakes. Of course, it helps to be a straight, White man which affords Biden a certain leniency when it comes to his errors that women and candidates of color do not have. But collectively, these candidates all have the ability to overcome their mistakes and get back into the public’s good graces. At the end of the day, American voters do not want a candidate who is flawless but rather one who is honest. Part of that honestly is admitting when you are wrong and admitting you can do better. Sure, the media will harp on this for a news cycle but by and large, the average voter will have forgotten it and will have moved on by the next day. Minor gaffes are inevitable and it is how a candidate responds to these gaffes that show the American voter if they have the “right stuff” to be president. At the end of the day, Americans don’t want a perfect candidate, they simply want a candidate to consistently work toward perfecting themselves and their country and to do it in a way that shows growth through learning and opportunities.
What voters want is a candidate to do so in a way that demonstrates that just like in life, it’s not that you get knocked down, it’s that you pick yourself back up again. Voters see the candidates as a reflection of themselves. We all make mistakes on a daily basis, some of which are embarrassing to say the least. But we as humans learn from these mistakes. In a day and age where every single candidate will be under the microscope, there will be bad debates for some like last night. There will be awkward food interactions like we’ve seen with Kirsten Gillibrand. There will be character concerns like we’ve seen with Amy Klobuchar. There will be questioning of previous policy decisions like we’ve seen with Kamala Harris. And yes, there will even be push back against Bernie Sanders for holding out on his tax returns. How each candidate deals with the scrutiny will go a long way in determining how successful they will be in the long run. Because if they are thrown off their game after one bad performance, then they simply don’t have what it takes to endure the next 19 months on the campaign trail with the stakes getting higher and higher each and every month. Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be battle-tested and ready to go.
And they will need every ounce of resolve to ultimately defeat Donald Trump.
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