In politics, the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself

Alison Lundergan Grimes

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the results of yesterday’s midterm elections (other than “ouch,” maybe), but I did want to take a moment to talk about a type of unforced error that Democrats are sadly prone to making. Our case study for this cycle was graciously provided by Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat currently held by radioactive man-turtle Mitch McConnell.

Grimes was in a bit of a bind, politically speaking; she was, after all, running as a Democrat in a state where President Obama’s approval ratings haven’t cracked 40% in years. So she had something of an uphill climb to make if she wanted to reach victory.

But in politics, how you make that climb is important. People pay attention to such things. And Grimes chose to make hers in the worst way possible.

Her strategy was pretty simple: to deny up and down that she had any connection to Barack Obama whatsoever. And by any connection, I mean any. In the most famous example, when asked point-blank by the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal whether or not she personally had voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, she refused to say.

Here’s the problem with that strategy: it’s transparent. Anyone with a lick of sense can see straight through it.

I mean, come on. You’re a Democratic Party candidate for the United States Senate; you were a delegate to both the 2008 and 2012 Democratic Party conventions; your father used to be the chairman of the state Democratic Party. And you want us to believe there’s some chance that you didn’t vote for the Democratic candidate for President? Especially when that candidate was to become America’s first black President — an historically transformative figure?

Give me a break.

The problem with strategies like this is that they are, in a word, cowardly. They make it look like you’re so afraid of acknowledging an unhelpful truth about yourself that you’re willing to say anything, no matter how dumb, to avoid having to do so.

They make you look like you have something to hide. (Why? Because trying to hide something is literally the exact thing that you are doing!) And people don’t trust people who look like they’re hiding something. It’s a basic, elemental test of character, and you are failing it.

There are ways to handle the problem of being a Democrat in a state where the Democratic President is unpopular without looking like a liar or an idiot. Kentuckians may not like Obama, but they are much less hostile towards kynect, the state health insurance exchange that Obama’s policies brought them. “I’m not an Obama Democrat, I’m a kynect Democrat” may sound like a contradiction in terms to Washington ears, but it could perhaps have served as a useful way to encapsulate the sentiment that she’s both a Democrat and a Kentuckian. Instead, though, Grimes chose to go with an answer that for all intents and purposes was “I am not a Democrat,” full stop. Which was the wrong answer, seeing as how there was that little D after her name on the ballot and all.

In politics, you can color who you are, you can shade who you are, you can filter who you are. But you can’t completely disassociate yourself from who you are. It’s an impossibility. You have to embrace it, warts and all; have to find a way to frame the warts so that they make sense to the people who you want to vote for you.

Bill Clinton, for all his faults, was a master of this. He left behind him a trail of scandals that would have instantly sunk the career of many a lesser politician. But he eventually developed a public persona that had room to explain these flaws: skirt-chasing, ne’er-do-well Uncle Billy, always ready with a wink and a smile and a good story. “There goes Uncle Billy again,” the family would cluck at Thanksgiving dinner over gossip about his latest escapade. But it would never occur to them to not invite him to Thanksgiving dinner, because Uncle Billy was too much fun to have around.

You have to, at least to some degree, be who you actually are. If your only message is to point at a mirror and say “that’s not me,” you come across as someone who’s either a liar or an idiot. And generally speaking, while people don’t like to vote for somebody they disagree with, the only thing they like less is voting for someone they think is a liar or an idiot.