In politics, image is substance

IN HIS first 10 days as a candidate, Gen. Wesley Clark, has been sized up by political journalists mainly on the basis of one question: Has he mastered the issues?

It's the wrong question. Yet the press is dwelling on it. In his first days on the stump, General Clark was faulted by analysts for being unfamiliar with subjects from AIDS research to healthcare reform. Reporters portrayed him as uncertain even on whether he'd have voted for the Iraq war - presumably his campaign's raison d'être.

Then, all eyes were upon him in last Thursday's Democratic debate, to see how he would handle queries on matters from trade to the budget deficit. One questioner even chided Clark for not sufficiently answering a query about Social Security privatization (Clark is against it).

Significantly, the journalists who've scrutinized Clark's policy positions and noted his purported deficiencies include not just conservative columnists - who have a motive in bashing a formidable challenger to President Bush - but also ostensibly objective news reporters. Some mocked the way Clark parsed his stand on the 2002 congressional war resolution. Others called attention to his need to ask his press secretary for help with other questions.

The implication is that Clark's absence of position papers on every issue from prescription drugs to renewable energy is a gaping liability.

This notion stems from a more basic assumption of the news media: that "the issues" matter more than mere "image," and that a responsible press corps will force candidates like Clark to focus on the former.

But the issues, as the press covers them in a primary campaign, don't really matter much. And they shouldn't.

Image, on the other hand, isn't such a baleful distraction as reporters presume. It's not a diversion from but rather an expression of a politician's underlying qualities. Especially in a primary campaign, few of us actually choose among candidates by gathering data on their precise stands on a fixed list of topics and seeing whose views most closely match our own. Is there anyone out there - outside the confines of the Brookings Institution perhaps - who plans to read all the candidates' position papers on healthcare reform and support the one with the best plan?

Although an ideological gulf certainly separates a right-wing Democrat like Sen. Joe Lieberman from a left-wing one like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, all the other major Democratic contenders are mainstream liberals, similar in their views. If elected, all of them would steer policy on issues from abortion to taxes to civil liberties in roughly the same direction. It's only the press's nagging focus on "issues" that's leading them to magnify minor divergences among them - like whether they'd repeal all or just some of the Bush tax cuts.

In reality, we vote not for the candidate who most perfectly shares our views on issues of the day - if we even possess such precise views in the first place - but for the one who moves us. A candidate's background, passions, intellect, earthiness, rhetorical style, maturity, temperament, candor, empathy, and vision - as well as related elements of image - determine whether we like or dislike a politician.

Journalists fear that sizing up a candidate on such intangibles will elevate style over substance. To like Howard Dean for his straight talk or John Kerry for his experience as a veteran strikes them as irresponsibly privileging image over reality.

But these stylistic elements do reveal the substance of the candidate - often more so than policy positions provisionally cobbled together to appease Iowa farmers, Michigan autoworkers, or Westchester suburbanites; and more so than an answer to a question du jour that may become moot after Inauguration Day.

History proves the point. Few Americans cared much when Franklin Roosevelt dropped his pledge to balance the budget and adopted deficit spending as a way to end the Depression. The ebullience and steadfast optimism that won him admirers in the campaign sustained his support as he experimented with different policies.

Similarly, not many people who voted for John F. Kennedy as a hawkish cold warrior complained when he moved from a policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union to one of arms control and détente. His "grace under pressure" remained a consistent hallmark of his much-praised leadership.

Then, too, Richard Nixon's outspoken defense of the traditional values of his cherished "Silent Majority" kept many heartland conservatives by his side - and many liberals at his throat - even as he uncharacteristically implemented measures to expand environmental protections and affirmative action.

Wesley Clark's candidacy won't rise or fall on whether he can offer a detailed plan to jump-start the economy or improve junior high school test scores. What will matter is whether he can excite and galvanize Democratic voters and answer their need for a leader capable of being tough on national security and tough on George Bush.

So far, he seems to be doing just that.

David Greenberg is author of the new book, 'Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.' He teaches political science and history at Yale.

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