Have you ever been around someone who constantly attacks other people, complains as if their life depends on it, and deals in personal and/or ad hominem attacks?
What did you think of that person?
I’m guessing words like “Leader, Visionary, Brilliant…Presidential” didn’t come to mind.
Unfortunately, the angry person I describe above, characterized quite a few of the GOP presidential contenders in the last primary debates. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum dealt attacks as if they were part of their religion. Meanwhile, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and oddly enough Ron Paul, seemed to stay on point—largely ignoring their opponents.
President Reagan’s famous 11th commandment—Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican—was largely ignored. Reagan knew that such attacks not only make you look petty and unprofessional, but they also give your opponents ammunition to use against your own party later in the general election. Since he won 44 states the first election, and 49 the second, I’d say he’s a decent presidential role model to learn from.
Aside from that, running on the “At least I’m not him/her” platform doesn’t convince people you are exceptional, because it doesn’t showcase your ideas; it just demonstrates you don’t like your opponent.
It’s also important to understand that party loyalists don’t win elections; independents do. The majority of Americans can easily be swayed to the left or right depending on who has the most positive message—Obama proved that style wins over substance. A majority of Americans do not like his policies (when they’re told of them without knowing they’re Obama’s ideas), yet he resides in the White House because he has a positive character and demeanor that convinced independents he was the best candidate. These voters largely ignored the substance behind his rhetoric, and didn’t apply much critical thinking when he spoke, because they just liked him so much as a person.
With that in mind, here are my Ten Commandments for the upcoming crop of presidential hopefuls.
1) Never speak ill of your opponent: Only talk about what you would do to fix the current situation. If you get attacked, defend yourself without attacking back. Don’t make a case as to why the other candidate is a worse candidate than you. Make your case for why YOU are the best candidate—period.
2) Always stay positive: Ever notice that even when Reagan cracked on Carter, it always came off as polite ribbing or a humorous quip? That wasn’t an accident. He won because he came off as a good man, not a hateful one. He was always amiable and affable. If you want people to vote for you, they first have to like you, and no one likes a hater.
3) Lose the fake smile: You’re not fooling anyone, so don’t fake any mannerisms; especially your smile. Anyone who has ever taken a picture knows the difference between a real and a forced one when they see it. So anything that doesn’t appear genuine comes off as a lie, including your smile. You’re politicians, not actors—just be yourself.
4) Sell your message to independents and conservatives alike: Preaching to the choir may get you the party nomination, but it will rarely get you the election. Assume that people aren’t on your side from the start, and tell them why they should join you. Reach out to non-traditional GOP voting blocks and try to find the common ground with them instead of ignoring them.
5) By all means be detailed in your plan, but simplify your message: You want everyone from economic geniuses to those with little to no experience in economics or politics to understand what you are saying. There was a perception that Newt Gingrich was the smartest man in the last debates, but to the politically uninformed, he just came off as someone who used a lot of big words they didn’t understand. This made him seem untrustworthy since it appeared he was just pulling the wool over their eyes. Find a way to give enough details to show the informed you aren’t just blowing smoke and you have a workable plan, but make it understandable to all.
6) Try to find something good to say about your opponent before you criticize their policies: I specify policies, because if you criticize them personally or their character, you might as well just quit now and save your donors from supporting the next presidential runner-up.
Let me give an example: If you were debating against Obama, you might say something like: “Obama did show courage in sending troops into Pakistan to kill Bin Laden, and he absolutely deserves credit for that. But pulling the troops out of Iraq under an aggressive timeline puts our troops and the mission in danger”.
This shows objectivity. When you demonstrate you can give credit to your opponent when it is due, then it shows independents that your criticisms are honest, not just incessant bemoaning by a partisan who will never say a positive word about their political rivals.
Admit when you make a mistake: Herman Cain and Rick Perry admitted to previous mistakes in the debates. This did great things for their likability. On the other hand, Mitt Romney continuing to support his health care plan as he condemned Obama’s looked completely disingenuous and hypocritical. Blindly defending everything you’ve done and never admitting fallibility shows that you are not honest. Everyone knows that people make mistakes. If you can’t admit to yours, any credibility you may have had goes out the window.
Show flexibility: People want to know that you’re willing to grow and change as president. If you’re inflexible, it says you’ll never get anything done. It’s an extension of not admitting mistakes. Herman Cain revamped his 9-9-9 plan to 9-0-9 for the impoverished in an effort to show his flexibility. Partisans think it shows weakness. Independents think it shows willingness to improve and work with others.
Scientists change their hypotheses all the time based on new information, because it’s the most effective method to attain the truth. There’s a lesson in that.
Crack a joke now and then: “I will not let my opponent’s youth and experience be an issue…” ~ Ronald Reagan. It was moments like that that made America love Reagan. If you’re a horrible joke teller, don’t force it, because it will come off horribly. But genuine light-hearted humor shows your human side. No one wants to elect a robot.
Don’t manufacture rage: Entirely too often, candidates will take an issue that no one really cares about and make a big deal about it.
Every chink in your opponent’s armor should not be seen as an opportunity to attack, it risks the “crying wolf” effect. Eventually your rage is just seen as incessant whining, and it makes you look petty and immature.
Save your rage for things that most Americans are honestly upset about and let the media pundits make a big deal out of the little things for your base. Behaving cool as a cucumber until a real crisis confronts you looks presidential.
For a great example of how to behave this way, look at former White House Press Secretary and Fox News analyst, Dana Perino. She’s certainly a Republican, but every time she’s on set, she’s fair in her analysis, so that when she does truly report on something we should all be furious about, you tend to take her more seriously than others who are in full-blown attack mode 100% of the time. She rarely takes the bait when given an opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain.
I could go on, but those ten are a good start. I implore every conservative candidate to remember that you win more bees with honey. Respect the other position first, those on the fence between that position and yours will laud you for it. Once you’ve shown them some respect, THEN point out why you think your opinion is better. If you follow the Commandments, you’ll find that those on the fence will decide they’d rather be in your backyard than your opponent’s.