A Ground Shaking Associated Press Story: The Authenticity Contest

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This must-read AP story boldly captures what has been going on in the last few weeks of this campaign, as two self-described “reformer” candidates struggle in a “change” election by acting more and more every bit like old-school, pragmatic politicians. Here is the thesis:

Overall, the race between Obama and McCain amounts to an authenticity contest. Voters are craving change from typical Washington ways and each candidate is claiming he offers a new brand of politics that transcends poisonous partisanship. Yet, each candidate, in what he says versus what he does, also is undermining his own promises not to become the politics of usual.

John McCain keeps claiming he is a straight-talker, even as he keeps shifting his positions when it is politically beneficial: Tax cuts, offshore drilling, etc. In the primary, he softened his pro-immigration rhetoric, but now he is returning to his old rhetoric as he moves to the general election, when the old rhetoric is politically beneficial.

Barack Obama claims to be a money-in-politics reformer, but then backs out of the public financing he once vowed to engage, because, well, it’s politically beneficial. (Obama said he would aggressively pursue a public financing agreement, but never really engaged in a negotiation.) Obama claims to want to change the way politics is done, with more candor and more transparency, even as his campaign staff tightens control over his image. At the same time, Obama has apparently lost his former enthusiasm for joint town halls with McCain.

The important thing here is to hold the candidates to their own standards. There is nothing too exceptional about a politician like McCain changing his positions or rhetoric on issues when it is politically beneficial. There are few who don’t at some point or another. But McCain does have a problem if he wants to run as a straight-talker who can rise above political pressure. In the same way, there is nothing inherently sinful about Obama opting out of public financing because he wants to keep his significant fund-raising advantage. But he does have a problem if he wants to maintain at the same time that he is a money-in-politics reformer who is going to do politics differently.

And we are only just now beginning the general election campaign. Both campaigns would do well to take the Associated Press story as a shot across the bow. To resort to a cliche, the message is this: If you want to keep talking the talk of change, you are going to have to walk the walk.