This is the season of high political anxiety. After months in the lead, Sen. Barack Obama has slipped back in the polls to dead even with the Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
As we enter the season of highest political advice, here's my advice to the Democrats: Dumb it down.
I don't need to give that advice to the Republicans. They've been dumbing it down for years. That's why they keep winning.
Do I sound condescending? Do I sound like I am talking down to Joe and Josephine SixPack out there in working class America? No way. I come from working class America. I know. It takes smarts to dumb the issues down well enough to help people to make an intelligent choice.
Winston Churchill was condescending. "The best argument against democracy," he is widely quoted as saying, "is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
But Churchill was old-fashioned. He apparently was raised, as I was, with the notion that voters in a democracy should seek the best and the brightest to run their governments. "Elites," in other words. Elite is a dirty word these days. It sounds too much like "elitist," which to most people is the same as a snob. Nobody likes snobs. Not even snobs.
Democrats too often have missed that point. Clark Clifford, a Democratic lawyer and Washington wise man, called Ronald Reagan an "amiable dunce." As if Reagan cared. The "amiable dunce" happily smiled his way through two presidential election victories, right into the history books as a conservative icon.
George W. Bush won re-election, too, although hardly anyone has associated him with the word "genius." His approval ratings since have fallen from around 80 percent after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to below 30 percent today. Yet the big message in his party's recent convention went sort of like this: Washington is messed up, so if you're looking for real change, vote for the same party that put you in this mess. The result, his party's ticket is well positioned to pull off a possible victory. Why? A big reason, as everyone seems to know these days, is how McCain-Palin has outmatched Obama's elegant charisma in winning the support of working-class white voters.
This is hardly a new problem for Democrats. Ever since the late 1960s, Republicans have achieved remarkable success with tagging Democrats as "limousine liberals," even when they don't have limousines. The term actually serves as shorthand for "people who are not like you" and "don't share your values." And, you know what? Sometimes the shorthand is accurate. It's not that Democrats don't share the values of ordinary hard-working Americans. It's just that their candidates sometimes have a hard time expressing those values.
That makes the upcoming debates an acid test for Obama. He has shown great eloquence at speeches but uneven performances in past debates. His college professor side tends to show. He gets too conversational. He does not speak in bumper stickers. His speech often hesitates and ponders too much like someone who is still reconsidering their views. Debates are a time to speak not just eloquently but strategically. Even when you're uncertain, try to sound certain.
This problem showed itself almost painfully during a televised forum with McCain at the Saddleback Church in California in Obama's passionless answer to the question of when he thinks life begins. He said the answer was "above my pay grade." McCain simply said he believed life begins "at conception." The conservative crowd cheered. McCain won the moment by leaving the details of his belief, like his past support of embryonic stem cell research, for some other time.
Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis revealed a similar absence of human emotion when asked during a 1988 debate whether his opposition to capital punishment would change if his own wife were raped and murdered. With his passionless answer, he lost the evening. You don't have to be a snob to sound like one. Or a zombie.
Al Gore ran into a similar problem back in 2000. The Vice President obviously had a more confident command of the facts and policies than Texas Gov. George. W. Bush did. But Gore let his confidence get away from him. His audibly impatient sighs reminded many of the smarty-pants kid who could never let the rest of the class forget that he was the smartest kid in the school.
Bush, meanwhile, reminded everybody of the sociable but less-mentally-agile kid, the "amiable dunce" to whom everybody wanted to lend a hand.
That vision came to mind as I watched Governor Palin try to answer ABC's Charles Gibson's question about "the Bush doctrine." She obviously didn't know much about what Gibson was talking about, but she gave a decent boilerplate version of Bush's foreign policy. Synopsis: We got to get them terrorists.
That's the kind of answer voters tend to like. Short and strong. It sounds resolute, even if it lacks the nuance or flexibility that virtues like wisdom and experience bring. We Americans search candidates who share our values and at least sound like people who know what they are talking about. We get fooled a lot.