America is so polarized that I have to be careful about writing only about Democrats or Republicans in Winning Campaigns. I’m in constant danger of alienating 50 per cent of the readership. Below, I had the good fortune to be able to use both Presidents Clinton and Reagan to illustrate a similar point.
There are a few secret weapons in this column that every political candidate can use. Ronald Reagan had one in spades. So did Bill Clinton.
It’s empathy. The ability to understand and identify with another person’s emotional state is a powerful tool—especially in politics. This tool doesn’t cost a dime either.
Remember Ronald Reagan helping to heal the nation after the space shuttle Columbia explosion? Remember Bill Clinton saying “I feel your pain” and being believed by most? Neither had to display any particular knowledge of the challenging issue at hand, nor unveil any new policy—caring and being seen to care was enough at the time.
One of the best ways to illustrate the power of this secret weapon is to study Ronald Reagan. During his terms in office, some academic research indicated that a majority of Americans questioned the President’s expertise. We now know he was a prolific reader and writer, but at the time, he was viewed as not much of a deep thinker. This might be unfair, but that’s what the research said.
However, where President Reagan excelled was in expressing, even embodying, empathy and caring for issues and the American people. His pleasant face and demeanour, as well as his “aw shucks” delivery didn’t hurt any. Reagan’s style caused the electorate to continually give him the benefit of the doubt—on military spending, the deficit, troop casualties in Lebanon, Iran Contra and other issues.
To fully understand how powerful a weapon Ronald Reagan wielded, we need to consult research which shows that expressing caring and empathy can account for up to 50 per cent of a speaker’s impact. Knowledge and expertise can be as low as 15 per cent. So, mastering your file and studying the issues is great, but you need that human touch too.
But there’s good news for everyone in the research. Taking decisive action or being perceived as highly intelligent can also work in your favour.
In order to understand just how these other traits can work for candidate, it’s useful to look at two of Ronald Reagan’s contemporaries on the world stage. They are Margaret Thatcher, his conservative soul mate in the UK, and liberal Pierre Trudeau in Canada, perhaps Reagan’s polar opposite in style and substance.
Prime Minister Thatcher transformed the United Kingdom with privatization, and a range of governance and restructuring initiatives. A grocer’s daughter of modest origins, she was not known as an intellect or for being particularly empathetic. But she was known for having an ambitious agenda which she pursued doggedly. She was a person of action.
President Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s terms overlapped for a bit, with the President famously referring to her as the “best man” in Britain. They both overlapped with Canada’s Pierre Trudeau—definitely a different character.
Trudeau was in power for most of the years between 1968 and 1984 Watergate tapes have Richard Nixon saying, “That asshole Trudeau is something else”. (As a matter of trivia, Reagan was at least a half a foot taller than Trudeau. On a Presidential visit to Canada, Trudeau found two of the tallest Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in the famous red serge uniform to put the President’s height in context).
Unlike Reagan or Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau grew up in great privilege. His father was a multi-millionaire and Pierre went to the best schools and dabbled in post-graduate work in the US and Europe. He bummed around the world long before it was fashionable.
Perceived as cold and distant, Trudeau was not known as a man of action, having really gotten down to work late in life and not doing much of anything in his first term in office. But he was known as a towering intellect—a philosopher king. (His young wife – half his age – once complained of being bored. “Read Plato” was his advice).
But, these three leaders were highly successful, winning re-election repeatedly and relatively easily. They each received varying portions of admiration, respect, and affection.
So the real secret weapon in this column is not just the notion of expressing empathy and caring for issues and people. That may be the easy card to play for some. It doesn’t take much research, you just have to dig down deep and determine what you care about.
And it’s also the notion that you can succeed by having a full and successful agenda—being a person of action. Or you can also succeed by being highly intelligent and showing it.
Imagine, though, if you combined all three traits. Imagine a President Reagan who had been able to transmit how widely he read and how much of his own speeches he’d personally written. Imagine if he’d also had Margaret Thatcher’s political will and action on issues like the deficit and poverty? What if Prime Minister Trudeau could have transmitted Ronald Reagan’s caring or been as active as Margaret Thatcher?
Ah. These dreams are the ones that keep new candidates coming forward and campaign teams working hard.