Sunday, September 28, 2008

McCaskill's Political Intelligence

Author Dissects McCaskill's P.I. During Her 2006 Race

"The Political Mind," by clinical, personality and political psychologist Drew Westen, is a scientific look at how pure emotion is the most important factor in driving voters decisions --- and ultimately election outcomes. Westen's fascinating discoveries through years of research shows how emotion trumps reason and how impressions trump issues in campaign after campaign. Westen, who reveals he's a partisan Democrat, skewers his own party for not understanding the need to move an electorate. His conclusion: Personal feelings towards a candidate are more important than positions on issues. And policies of a candidate only matter to voters to the extent that those policies influence their emotions.

Throughout his book, Westen, an Emory University professor, points to Sen. Claire McCaskill's use of words and emotions during her 2006 campaign to help build his case. Westen, who calls Missouri's junior Senator a "rising superstar," argues that McCaskill is one of the few Democratic candidates who understands and successfully uses emotion, imagery and rhetoric to her advantage. In one exchange on Meet the Press, Westen praises McCaskill for her combinded "bluntness, folksiness and a powerfully evocative metaphor," to make her point.

MR. RUSSERT: Ms. McCaskill, you said this. "We should redeploy our troops strategically within the region over a two-year time frame." What does that mean?

MS. McCASKILL: . . . You know, as a daughter of rural Missouri, we have a saying, "If you're in a hole, you need to quit digging."
Westen credits the success of McCaskill and other Democrats in 2006 to this: "On a range of issues, Democrats began to use phrases and imagery that translated the Democratic litany that had shown little traction earlier in the campaign into the language of values and emotion."

Here's another Westen rule for campaign managers: "There is no more important task of a lead strategist or debate coach for a candidate than to identify areas of ambivalence or defensiveness and to work with the candidate until he or she has an emotionally resonant response to tough questions."

Westen again points to the 2006 McCaskill race versus then-Sen. Jim Talent. Defensiveness, in Westen's eyes, erodes voter enthusiasm and leaves a bad taste in voters' mouths. In their Meet the Press debate, Westen says, "Tim Russert simply asked Talent the kinds of questions Democrats should have been asking their opponents about their stands on abortion for years, challenging them on the natural entailments of their black-and-white position on when life begins:

MR. RUSSERT: When do you believe life begins?

SEN. TALENT: I believe it begins at the beginning, at, at conception.

MR. RUSSERT: So that embryo is a human being?

SEN. TALENT: Yeah. I think whatever it is that makes -- if I . . .

MR. RUSSERT: And so, and so to use that for research is taking of a life?

SEN. TALENT: Yeah, it's the, it's the use -- instrumental use of a person for some purpose . . .

MR. RUSSERT: Then why do you favor exemptions in abortion law for rape . . .? If it's a human being, why are you allowing the taking of that life?

SEN. TALENT: Ok. Well, I've I've supported those exemptions over the years. It's a situation where the pregnancy was not voluntary, and I think the law ought to draw a different balance under those circumstances. But as I said before, I mean, I support . . .

MR. RUSSERT: But it is the taking of a life under your . . .

SEN. TALENT: That's, that's right.
Westen continues to point out the probing of Talent's position, noting Russert's reference to Senator Danforth's support of embryonic stem cell research.

MR. RUSSERT: If you have a three-year-old with juvenile diabetes, people believe that research on the embryonic stem cell may in fact bring about a cure.

SEN. TALENT: That's right. The research -- I've said I think the research is promising. I think it's speculative. And the good news, Tim, is we're not in a position where we have to make this kind of choice, we have alternatives that science is developing. At MI . . .

MR. RUSSERT: Right now?

SEN. TALENT: Well, yeah. I mean, look, all this is speculative. They haven't, they haven't been able to clone an embryo, they haven't been able to get cures yet out of pluripotent stem cell research . . .

In Talent's response, we see all the signs of defensiveness: stammering, hemming and hawking, making illogical leaps, inserting abstruse language (pluripotent stem cell research). And Talent's response set McCaskill up for one of the most brilliant displays of political intelligence of the 2006 midterm elections:

MS. McCASKILL: My faith directs me to heal the sick. God gave us the miracle of human intelligence to find cures. Our country has never turned its back on medical research and we shouldn't in Missouri . . . I respect people who disagree with me on this issue on principle, I understand there are differences. I come down on the side of hope, hope for cures and supporting science. And I think it's very important that someone be principled, strong and not muddled, but very clear and straightforward about their position on this issue.

Normally Democrats are the ones hedging on "values issues." But in this case the shoe was on the other foot. Talent's moral principle (life begins at birth, so a discarded has the same moral status as a child with diabetes) made clear that he was putting a moral abstraction above the life of a living child. McCaskill artfully contrasted their two opposing moral positions. She appealed to hope and compassion and challenged Talent's religious position with one of her own. In speaking of the miracle of human intelligence, she used a word that signaled to many conservative Christians that she cared about their values and culture while enunciating a stance with strong appeal to those in the political center. She acknowledged her respect for people with principled stands other than hers but made clear that her stand was a deeply principled one.

McCaskill's political intelligence was apparent from her first moments on the political stage in 2006. One of the reasons Democrats won more elections than expected in 2006 was that party leaders carefully picked candidates high on political cases.
But Westen is not without criticism for McCaskill. He says McCaskill showed that same defensiveness on he touchy topic of abortion. Here's his analysis of McCaskill's answer on a question on partial-birth abortion during that same Meet The Press appearance:

The vast majority of Americans (85 percent) believe abortion should be permitted when the mother's life is in danger. But nearly 90 percent support some restrictions . . . The most frequent interpretation of these seemingly conflicting results is that Americans are 'divided' on abortion, a position that makes Democrats anxious, particularly in red or purple states, and typically leads either to silence or to a defensive, "I'm kind of pro-choice, but not really" response. A prototypical example is Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill's response with then Senator Jim Talent on Meet the Press in 2006:

MR. RUSSERT: Do you support a ban on partial-birth abortion?

MS. McCASKILL: I do, within the constitutional framework that we currently have, with the exception for the life of the mother. I also support parental notification. On the whole issue of abortion, what we need to do --- I, I, I certainly believe that abortion should remain safe, legal and rare in the early term, but why don't we concentrate on prevention? Why don't we all -- none of us want abortion, none of us support abortion [turns to Talent, as if seeking support]. Let's come together and work on preventing abortions in this country, making adoption easier and, and, and do the right thing to, to, drop the number of abortions instead of making health care more unavailable to poor women, which in fact drives up the number of abortions in this country.

McCaskill was one of the sharpest, most emotionally intelligent candidates the Democrats fielded in any race in 2006 and was able to defeat an incumbent in a state that usually sees red in national elections. Yet her response was defensive, indexed by the initial retreat to legalism ("within the constitutional framework . . ."), followed by a gratuitous reference to her position on parental notification (which Russert hadn't asked about,) followed by an uncharacteristic stumbling for words and a barrage of half-measures designed to change the subject from what she apparently believed was an unpopular stance in her home state.
Westen goes on to in part blames this on the national party, for being unable to generate a principled stand that could spare its candidates from having to "invent their own response" at every turn. He argues that the Democratic Party's position on abortion is incoherent. He argues that it would be better if Democrats took a principled stand and stuck to it.

If you tell the truth about what you believe, people are more likely to hear your message. And they're even more likely to be receptive if what you feel happens to converge with what they feel. So here is a simple, compelling, three-dimensional distillation of what the average American feels about abortion . . . It represents a compelling moral vision that Democrats can contrast everywhere with the moral vision of the right . . . And it is deceptively simple, and in this case readily summarized in three sentences:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It's a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else's. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person.

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