But like it or not, "authenticity" is an important political tool in its own right. And voters are malleable as well, supporting a political candidate they view as genuine, even if the candidate’s views differ greatly from their own, as I discovered in New Hampshire in 2000 where some number of independent, socially liberal voters chose to vote for the hot McCain in the Republican primary over Bill Bradley in the Democratic. Likewise, pro-death penalty voters supported Tim Kaine in Virginia because they felt that his opposition was authentically rooted in his religious belief -- it actually strengthened his sense of authenticity. But as McCain demonstrates, authenticity is itself a pose, one he adopted and has now discarded.
McCain’s latest move is necessary, if he wants to be president, but it’s awfully daring. Live by the cult of authenticity, perish by the cult of authenticity. A pollster once told me that the way to destroy a political opponent is to get people wondering, "Who is this guy?" That insight was certainly borne out by the demolition of John Kerry, in which he collaborated in creating a sense that he didn't quite have areal core of beliefs. I assume that McCain's gamble is that he has so strongly established the "straight-talk express" brand with the general electorate that he can perform the ritual obsequies of the Republican nominating process and still emerge with his reputation intact.
All good, but the real issue is not whether McCain can maintain this brand with the people it's whether he can keep his sycophants in the press on board, keep them intoning the phrase "straight-talk" every time he's in their range.
I actually enjoyed Tucker Carlson's book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, though it certainly wasnt't without its flaws. He gave a good insider's perspective on just how in the tank the press corps was for McCain during the 2000 campaign. A couple relevant excerpts:
McCain ran an entire presidential campaign aimed primarily at journalists. He understood that the first contest in a presidential race is always the media primary. He campaigned hard to win it. To a greater degree than any candidate in thirty years, McCain offered reporters the three things they want most: total access all the time, an endless stream of amusing quotes, and vast quantities of free booze.
I saw reporters call McCain "John," sometimes even to his face and in public. I heard otherse, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the Mccain campaign as "we"- as in, "I hope we kill Bush." It was wrong, but it was hard to resist.