Why do you want to be president? Seems like a simple question anybody running for President ought to be able to answer.
That’s not always so.
The most famous candidate to drop the ball was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1979 as he was setting up a primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter.
The latest person to fumble is Donald Trump.
When Fox News host Sean Hannity asked the president why he wants to be president again, Trump brought his famous word salad out for another serving to the American people. After an unconvincing paragraph or two of talking, he never really offered a compelling case for himself.
Knowing why you want to be president isn’t sufficient to win, but it’s a start. That answer tends to inform the entire message of the campaign.
Bill Clinton wanted to fight for the forgotten middle class and promised to do something about the economy (stupid!) and health care.
George W. Bush pledged to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office which coincided with any underlying desire he may have had to avenge his father’s loss eight years earlier and Saddam Hussein’s purported attempt to kill the elder President Bush.
A good message is like The Dude’s rug from the movie “The Big Lebowski.” It ties a whole room full of campaign promises together for a candidate. It also serves as a magnifying glass that channels random political attacks into a focused beam that can zap a political opponent like an ant on the sidewalk. Candidates who have a clear and consistent message tend to do very well with the electorate.
Barack Obama portrayed himself as the embodiment of “Hope” and “Change” and voters were ready for what he was selling.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign started with supporters declaring “I’m with her.” Most voters want to know if the candidate is with them. Then Clinton tried to be a little bit of everything to everyone. The candidate had a wall in her campaign office that let workers put sticky notes up, highlighting policies she supported that they liked. As I said at the time, the wall of stickies made me nervous. Her attacks on Trump were unfocused, too.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump came down that escalator at Trump Tower and promised to “Make America Great Again” by adopting economic nationalist policies and reviling Mexican immigration. His targeted voters loved it and MAGA paraphernalia proliferated.
This year, Trump’s campaign seems much more adrift. At one point, Vice President Pence promised to “make America great again, again.” Meh.
Joe Biden has been far more consistent. As Biden adviser Anita Dunn put it in an email to me, Biden wants “to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of the nation, and to unify the nation. It’s why he got in the race, it’s the message he took to Democrats during the primary, and it’s the message he’s taking to the nation during this general election. It’s what he believes, and voters know he isn’t giving them something he’s polled; he’s talking to them straight from his heart.”
That central message never shifted much during primaries – even when people like me doubted Biden’s “return to normalcy” approach. So many Americans were ready to get back to regular order, including millions of African Americans in South Carolina and across other southern states, that Biden surged past Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) like a lightning bolt and captured the nomination. He’s been in the polling lead ever since.
Biden’s message winds its way around Trump’s behavior and encompasses the former vice president’s reaction without having to shift. When Trump is exposed for minimizing the threat of the coronavirus to the public, or calling members of the military “suckers” and “losers,” Biden’s core message adapts to the facts and reasserts that Trump is unfit to serve in the White House.
Trump, on the other hand, has been groping around the political landscape for a way to characterize Biden. He attacked his relationship with China; said Biden is diminished; has gone after his son’s business dealings abroad. Now, Trump wants voters to believe that Biden will be captured by more pProgressive Democrats and will destroy suburban (read “white”) America.
That’s the other thing about political messages. They typically have to be based on something the public can believe.
Campaigns are about the future, more than the past. They are about voters hopes and fears more than the candidates. If the salesman-in-chief can’t make the case for his reelection, it’s hard to see how most voters will buy it again.
Jamal Simmons is a Democratic campaign strategist, CBS News analyst and hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.