A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by Liz Marlantes.

Harris's lack of 'authenticity' hurt. But what makes a politician genuine?

Why We Wrote This

Successful candidates are often skilled at coming across as ‘real’ to voters. It’s about conveying an unscripted quality – and a lack of fear.

Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle/AP
California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during a rally at Aiken High School in Aiken, S.C. Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Senator Harris suspended her presidential campaign this week.

Dear reader:

“The thing about shifting messages is it creates issues about authenticity. And authenticity is the coin of the realm in presidential races.”

That was former Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking to The Daily Beast about Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign, which abruptly ended yesterday. Like many political commentators, Mr. Axelrod highlighted a lack of clarity as to what the California senator stood for and why she wanted to be president. Ms. Harris frequently came across as waffling – taking a stand on an issue like health care, and then reversing herself or seeming to hedge her bets.

As Mr. Axelrod noted, the problem wasn’t policy – most Democratic voters are not as interested in policy minutiae as the various televised debates would lead you to believe. It was that Ms. Harris too often seemed as though she was just trying to be whatever audiences wanted her to be.

Authenticity has stymied many a candidate, of course. During the 2000 campaign, Al Gore was seen by many as less comfortable in his own skin than George W. Bush. John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton all faced similar “authenticity deficits.”

In a piece in The Atlantic last spring, Gilad Edelman posited that authenticity in politics “is not about being honest; it’s about seeming unscripted.” Candidates “seem authentic to the extent that they seem to be saying what they’re really thinking, rather than what they’re ‘supposed’ to say.”

President Barack Obama was skilled at conveying a thoughtfulness that seemed natural, even when he was reading off a teleprompter. President Donald Trump’s willingness to break taboos – to say things most other politicians wouldn’t – makes him seem more “real” to many of his supporters.

In some ways, authenticity is related to fearlessness. Candidates that seem afraid of saying the wrong thing or uncertain of themselves on the big stage often get pegged as inauthentic.

“The caution and fence-straddling that Harris displayed earlier in her career, as the lead local and then state prosecutor, perhaps provided clues to her problems as a presidential candidate,” writes Christopher Cadelago in Politico. “This time, the moment — and the stage — proved too large.”

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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