Monday, December 11, 2006

Do ’08 Presidential Contenders Need a Great Story?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) was an orphan before being adopted by a couple in Pittsburgh. His adoptive mother struggled with alcoholism.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan-born economist who was educated at Harvard and a white woman from Kansas. He grew up in Indonesia before returning to the United States and eventually graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) served in the Navy. He was shot down and endured five years of torture as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam.

Everybody loves a good story, don’t they? Why do you think people pay money to go to the movies? But it is reporters and editors who get particularly excited about a good story (which probably is one reason why Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass got as far as they did with major print organizations).

And media consultants? They get downright misty-eyed when thinking about what they can do with a candidate with a personal story that pulls at the heartstrings. What could be better than being raised in a broken home or coming from a town called Hope, Ark. (as Bill Clinton and likely ’08 GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Mike Huckabee did)?

Writing about Vilsack, who recently announced that he’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination,’s Chris Cillizza wrote that “any argument for Vilsack starts with his life story — perhaps the most compelling of any candidate on either side considering the 2008 race.”

Vilsack does have an interesting story, but if he is counting on that to get him a long, hard look from Democratic activists, donors and the national media, I hope he has a backup plan. While a great story may get you elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, or to the Iowa state Senate, count me as skeptical that it’s enough to get you the campaign war chest necessary to make a decent run at the White House.

Many presidential hopefuls have something in their life stories that can paint as a personal test or a hurdle that they overcome. The old “born in a log cabin” chestnut is about as old as the country.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had his Vietnam service. President George H.W. Bush was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. Even George W. Bush, who didn’t exactly grow up in a log cabin, could talk during his White House bid about how he changed from a hard-drinking, fun-loving guy to a mature adult.

But let’s not go overboard about the value of a personal story. Democratic House candidate Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, had a great one; Democratic political operatives were so smitten with her candidacy that they told me they were absolutely certain that she would win the Congressional race in Illinois’ 6th district. Yet she lost to Republican Peter Roskam at the same time that Democrats with far less appealing stories were winning contests in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

A candidate’s “story” may get voters’ attention, but a story is by its very nature backward-looking, while presidential contests are about the future. Ultimately, a candidate must offer more compelling reasons than a résumé to justify why he or she deserves to be nominated and elected. Remember: No matter his personal history, which included great hardships and great courage, McCain’s incredible personal story didn’t win him the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.

What matters most to voters in selecting a nominee for the White House? Lots of things, of course, but the most important question is whether, after months of campaigning, enough primary voters and caucus attendees in the early states think that a particular hopeful has passed the smell test. Does he or she have the experience, leadership ability and stature to be president and commander in chief? Can you envision so-and-so in the Oval Office, keeping the nation safe and prosperous?

Last time, Iowans decided that the answer was “no” when they were offered then-frontrunner Howard Dean (D).

It’s far too early to rule out anyone from either party’s presidential mix. Obviously, a handful of candidates begin with considerable assets, from name recognition to undisputed fundraising ability to early institutional support. Some already seem to have the stature of a future president of the United States. Having an interesting story to tell is nice, but starting off with real advantages is a whole lot better.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 7, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.