One of the most depressing aspects of the 2008 campaign is how negative it will be. But the negativity won't be coming from the campaigns so much as from the media.
White House candidates will be scrutinized more than ever thanks to the convergence of the most important election in a generation and the largest-ever gaggle of reporters (both old and new media) who will be covering them.
So what gives? Journalists, columnists and bloggers are natural skeptics, and that means each hopeful is certain to wind up with a laundry list of "cons." And with so many journos -- both professional and amateur -- covering this campaign, the competition to "eliminate" a candidate will be intense.
At some point, this will lead to handwringing: "Can't we find better candidates?" or "This kind of negative coverage is what keeps the really good candidates from running."
Some '08 candidates seem more prepared for the inevitable why-they-won't-win coverage than others. The ones who prove to be more comfortable with their warts and are able to address the ones that truly concern voters will emerge not just with their integrity intact, but possibly with the presidency.
With that in mind, each of the current top three contenders for both parties in our White House rankings has an Achilles' heel that must be overcome -- a negative feature that could define a candidate throughout the campaign, regardless of the political landscape.
In some cases, the "heel" is obvious, but not in others. However, in each case, if the candidate overcomes this one problem, the rest of the media-generated "cons" should take care of themselves.
Let's start with our two front-runners: New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R).
For McCain, the negative he can't escape is his age. His stance on the Iraq war and his conservative credentials are subjective problems that could be altered. But McCain can't change when he was born. There are subtle ways McCain is already trying to overcome this. Showcasing the vibrancy of his 94-year-old mother is one way -- he seems to be bringing her up in interviews with greater frequency. Clearly, showing off her "bounce" is an attempt to put age-conscious media and voters at ease. Dare we predict that she'll be prominent in McCain TV ads?
Other ways McCain could try to minimize voter nervousness regarding his age include pledging not to run for a second term. (Remember, it's the media's memories of Ronald Reagan's second term that seem to guide some of this uneasiness with a 70-something president.) In '03, I wrote a column arguing that some candidate ought to run on the mantra of "taking the politics out of the presidency" by pledging to serve just one term. Could McCain frame the decision this way?
Another more likely way McCain will try to quell age fears, should he get the GOP nod, will be to name a competent running mate. It can't just be someone youthful; it has to be someone who strikes voters as immediately presidential. Think the un-Dan Quayle.
Clinton's Achilles' heel is her last name. She can't change it without tossing aside her No. 1 asset. But if 2008 is as much about change as some foresee, then the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton presidential succession possibility is going to wear on voters in ways that will be hard to quantify. It's the type of issue (like age) that may not show up in polls but could sway a swing voter.
The Clinton folks aren't dumb -- they realize that legacy and the current president comprise one big problem for them. There are a few intriguing ways for her to get around the issue. One will be to continue to surround herself with "Hillary" folks while publicly shunning "Bill" folks. (Maybe strategists James Carville and Paul Begala won't even be part of the official campaign.) Another will be to play the gender card. The more her campaign is about bringing a "woman's touch" to the White House, and the less it's about bringing a Clinton "back" to the White House, the more she'll seem like an agent of change.
Moving down our six-pack of '08 front-runners, two of them have Achilles' heels that are geographic in nature but also double as value judgments about who they are.
For former Gov. Mitt Romney (R), the values-loaded geographic issue is Massachusetts. While Romney will no doubt try and showcase his experience in other walks of life -- business and the Olympics, for instance -- the shadow of Massachusetts will hang over him in ways he won't be able to avoid or explain. Voters may be able to get comfortable with Mormonism once they learn more, but their judgment about Massachusetts politicians has been made over and over again.
The ghosts of John Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Ted Kennedy are going to trail Romney throughout the campaign. Romney can't duck where he's lived and governed but he also can't overexplain it, either. The good news for Romney is that if he can get through the primaries, it's possible that his holding office in Massachusetts won't matter or might even be a positive for general election voters.
The other candidate with a geographic Achilles' heel is Rudy Giuliani. No city seems to have its name used more disparagingly than New York City. From the frequently used phrase "typical New Yorker," to commercials like the one Pace picante sauce ran for years in which cowboys gasped to learn that their salsa was made in "New York City!," taking potshots at NYC is a regular pastime for many Americans. This, despite our secret desire to live in a city that is as culturally influential as the Big Apple is.
Giuliani is going to have to sell his NYC values as a positive. It's not going to be easy because of the preconceived notions folks have of the place. It could ultimately make some of Giuliani's other supposed baggage more believable to the general public, because it's something they'd expect from a "typical New Yorker." Like Romney, Giuliani's NYC baggage may actually be an asset in a general.
As for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., they share many potential negatives, but each has an Achilles' heel that stands out.
For Obama, it's inexperience; not his inexperience actually, but George W. Bush's. One of the more clever lines I heard early on from Obama was his initial response on the experience question. He pointed to all the experience Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld brought to the table -- was that good experience?
It's a good comeback but actually only underscores his bigger problem. His inexperience mirrors Bush's. And an opponent can easily argue that Bush's lack of experience is what led to the hiring of Cheney and Rumsfeld. What bad hires will Obama's inexperience lead to? Combating this problem won't be easy, but it's navigable. For example, he could create as many "decision" opportunities as possible during the campaign which would give voters a glimpse of his style. He could accomplish this early on by announcing his Cabinet during the campaign, or simply by being as open with voters during the process as he can be. The more exposure a skeptical voter gets, the better.
As for Edwards, the heel he'll have to overcome is the one of authenticity. Edwards, both in '04 and now, says things that a lot of voters want to hear. But how will voters know this is the "real" Edwards and not the one that was trained as a trial lawyer and therefore comfortable making any argument well? Edwards has gone through a subtle political transformation, one that is actually understandable and believable. But his authenticity will be questioned (why did he support the war in the first place, why did he support such-and-such agreement when he was in the Senate... etc.). There's no silver bullet to "prove" to voters that one is "authentic;" they just have to be won over with time.
It seems that early on, Edwards realizes this may be an issue. It may explain everything from his unorthodox pick of David Bonior -- never one for showing off strategic skills, who seems much more of a "message" pick than a "strategy" pick (and I mean that as a compliment) -- to the Web-based reality series on Edwards' campaign. This could help, but he's got a long way to go.
McCain's age, Clinton's last name, Mitt's Massachusetts, Giuliani's Big Apple, Obama's Bush problem, and Edwards' authenticity. Five of these six heels will knock these folks out. Who will clear their negative hurdle the most gracefully? We won't find out until Nov. 2008.