A politician’s credibility is like money in a bank account. There’s deposits and withdrawals. If the balance dips below zero the politician better hope there’s not an election coming up, because it’s tough to win with a deficit. Surprisingly, a surplus of credibility can be dangerous, too. It seems to build up expectations that, when unmet, causes a run on the politician’s account.
Take New York Governor Elliot Spitzer. He earned tremendous credibility with the public going after bad guys on Wall Street and in corporate suites. He ran for governor and won with 69 percent of the vote. Then his dalliance with call girls came to light. Because it went to the core of his image as a crime fighting good guy, it drained his credibility account faster than, say, having a relationship with a White House intern hurt President Bill Clinton’s account. The Governor resigned within days of the revelation, his credibility account depleted.
Candidates have an especially hard time maintaining credibility. The public expect politicians running for office to over promise, to pander, and to hurl around questionable charges against their opponents. And the candidates seldom disappoint. It’s the rare politicians who can rise above those low expectations. Senator Barack Obama did and so had Senator John McCain.
That’s why the news that an adviser to Senator Obama, University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, had told the Canadian consulate in Chicago that Senator Obama’s complaints about NAFTA was mostly “politics” did so much damage. It raised questions about what had been a competitive advantage: his honesty and integrity. Could it be that Senator Obama was no different than other candidates? The run on his credibility account was substantial and, given the timing, he didn’t have enough time to staunch the outflow, let alone build up the account again. The result: he fared worse in both Texas and Ohio than expected. Instead of wrapping up the nomination on March 4th it’s onto Pennsylvania.
Senator John McCain bases his political brand on credibility — which is why he’s likely to be in big trouble once the Democrats stop fighting one another and focus on him. He’s been spending his credibility freely and the pantry is nearly bare. His pandering to the religious right and his embracing of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts after first opposing them are just two examples of his overspending. Soon the “Straight Talk Express” will be less a mode of transportation than a punchline. He’s proven himself just another politician, willing to sell his soul to win office. That makes him just one of the pols. In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, but it means he may have more trouble rising above the voter dissatisfaction with the GOP. There’s time for him to rebuilt the account while the Democrats distract voters, but it doesn’t appear he intends to do so.
Senator Hillary Clinton’s credibility has never been high among voters. Thanks to her husband’s administration and her own actions during that time, she has a reputation as being a fairly typical politician — at least where trustworthiness is concerned. This is one of the fissures in her edifice of inevitability that Senator Obama was able to exploit.
During the campaign, she actually has done a good job of building up her credibility. Senator Clinton’s performance in the debates have demonstrated her command of the issues and she’s allowed glimpses into the passion and commitment that underlies her political ambitions.
Yet there’s the little things that seem to be depleting her account. Consider her comments on whether the Michigan and Florida delegations should be seated at the Democratic National Convention. She started off saying it was important to seat these delegations to make sure their states were represented. This was a stretch. They were being punished for violating Democratic Party rules their representatives had previously agreed to, after all. But it passed the straight face test. You could argue that making sure two states sure to be important battlegrounds in November feel a part of the process was a greater good than enforcing party rules without laughing out loud.
But now she’s gone further, claiming the Democratic primary votes in Florida and Michigan were “fair.” This, of course, is ridiculous. What’s fair about an election in which only Senator Clinton and a minor candidate were on the ballot as in Michigan? And what’s fair about an election in which the candidates don’t campaign as was the case in Florida? Those weren’t fair elections. Argue that the rules should be changed for the greater good. Argue that enforcing rules shouldn’t matter. But to argue that the elections were fair is incredulous.
And thus Senator Clinton withdraws from her credibility account for a no good reason. It’s not like any reasonable person could agree with her. Nor does any rationale person believe she’d make the same arguments if she hadn’t come in first in those rule-breaking primaries. She risks not just depleting her credibility, but looking foolish.
Besides, a candidate’s credibility is too rare, fragile and important a thing for a candidate to waste.