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You have an opinion, but do you have what it takes to be heard?

Nancy Goldstein
Brooklyn, NY

Nancy Goldstein

I’m a communications professional and journalist known for addressing complex, sometimes unpopular issues in lucid, compelling prose.

There you go again

Editor's note: We asked all our finalists to watch and then assess the debate between Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell this morning.

 

The chances of Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party candidate in Delaware, winning a seat in the United States Senate are slim. But watching her debate her opponent, Chris Coons, provides a much bigger chance to grasp how and why candidates in the O'Donnell mold--which is, itself, based to a large degree on Ronald Reagan's public persona--are continually gaining ground in this country.

 

It's not just that the Reagans and O'Donnells of the world often do a better job of seeming like someone you'd rather sit next to on a barstool than their opponents--even when, like G.W. Bush, they come from privileged backgrounds. It's that the Gores, Kerrys, and Coons of the world already come across as privileged, windy stiffs. When Reagan said "There you go again" to Carter during the 1980 presidential debates, voters all over the country said, "At last." It didn't matter whether or not Carter's point about Medicare was legitimate: Reagan's shrugging, monosyllabic response tapped into people's frustration with professional politicians and complicated explanations.

 

So what do we get if we assess this morning's debate primarily in terms of tone and cadence, with substance following a distant third? He: Angry daddy. Impatient, know-it-all older brother. Responds with a veritable wall of verbiage delivered in a flat, tense, aren't-you-a-moron tone, even when expressing compassion (as Coons did when talking about the importance of lessening stigma against people with HIV/AIDS). She: Passionate black-sheep aunt. Unfairly treated younger sister. Can't answer half the questions, but her initial response is often simple and straightforward. Openly frustrated and befuddled with a system, and an opponent, that she doesn't like or understand.

 

My point isn't that O'Donnell's the winner when it comes to tone and Coons is the winner when it comes to content. It's that he's saying many of the right things, but in a way that makes you want to sit next to someone else at Thanksgiving. She, on the other hand, may be a mess, and the accusations she lobbed at Coons during the debate may or may not be true. But they hit a nerve with everyone who finds politicians like Coons hard to understand or privileged or aloof: That he's a rich kid who went to Yale and married into yet more money. That he interrupts her when he feels like it, but sics the moderator on her when the tables are turned. That he treats military funerals as a photo op. That he doesn't answer the questions.

Over time, it's not surprising that the Coonses of the world--the professional politicians, the guys who talk the talk and wear the suit and know all the stuff that confuses you, and went to a good school, are going unheard by Americans who constantly feel dismissed and disrespected by the system that rules them but rarely serves them.

Read more entries from this challenge round. Check out what the judges think. And come back Friday to vote.


 

By Nancy Goldstein  |  October 19, 2010; 11:55 AM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge
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Comments

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On the other hand has the TV sound bite ruined America? Does it cause unqualified actors and pretty boys to be elected instead of serious, knowledgeable statesman? Has American intellect deteriorated to the Sesame Street, childlike, three second attention span state?

That said, it is an excellent, well written piece, up to the wrong conclusion. Right on if it said politicians need to understand and cater to today's voters style, rather than defending that style as correct.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 20, 2010 9:42 AM
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I think you touch on an important fact about elections, which is that people tend to forget that its a job interview process, and not just a general popularity contest.

In a democracy, you get the leaders you deserve. I think it speaks volumes about americans that unqualified people like O'donnell are actually put on pedastals to attempt to actually govern. O'donnell has no idea how to govern, no idea of the law she has to govern by, and no idea how she intends to implement any convuluted idea she has. I think your blog post catches that pretty succinctly.

Posted by: ragingbull913 | October 19, 2010 8:50 PM
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Nancy, you were doing great up until the last paragraph, when you conflated a number of ideas. "Professional politicians" aren't necessarily the ones that know the stuff that confuses you; really, what else was GW Bush if not a professional politician? (He also went to two of those "good schools" with degrees from Yale and Harvard.) Plus some really smart people went to land-grant colleges. Better to keep your thoughts from all running together if you want to be understood.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 19, 2010 1:37 PM
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At the risk of sounding like someone you'd rather not sit next to at Thanksgiving, I wonder if you recall the famous Ben Franklin quote, when a lady asked what the Constitution Framers had given the country, he said, "A Republic, Madame, if you can keep it."

Now, it's not likely that anyone who did not listen in school would grasp that fully. Why, because you need to know what "a republic" means and how we might lose it. In fact, we are losing it, mostly for the reasons that Franklin feared--an electorate ill-informed and manipulated by undemocratic interests and government mired in political faction.

You see, the Reagan image of shining city on a hill and cowboy hats is intended to make movie majic so the American people will watch passively as corporate interests makes all of us submissives. Remember Eisenhower warned us about the Military-Industrial Complex and its designs to take over America. That has al but been accomplished. The Citizens United victory is just another step in that domination of our lives.

No, wishing that the smarter although less personable politician or even the more likeable over the more professional politician is just another way that you drink to Kool-Aid--wake up! Don't do it!!

Posted by: edarden4u | October 19, 2010 1:30 PM
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I think this is exactly right, and the first time I've seen it put so succinctly.

The question, of course, is what to do about it? Other than the endless "political spin" discussions that seem more and more to dominate the news. I feel like I know more about Christine O'Donnell--who as you say, isn't going to win--than I do about a lot of things that are far more important and will/are actually affect(ing) the nation. Part of why this is, of course, is precisely what you're putting your finger on: the more important stuff is also more complicated, and therefore less appealing to the public (i.e., the audience/consumers of for-profit news). Obviously part of the answer is to hire folks who can analyze and explain complicated ideas in clear language that's easy to understand... in other words, the kind of thing you're doing here...

Posted by: member8 | October 19, 2010 1:19 PM
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Nancy,
Your analysis may be correct, but what a sad comment it is on America. "Smarty-pants" are frequently resented in school, and it's a shame that some of us never grow out of our juvenile resentment of the kids that are smarter than us.

I, for one, want my candidates to be smarter than me. I don't have the answers to some of the problems facing this nation, and I'd like to believe that, with oversight, the really smart people are able to solve those problems.

When Christine O'Donnell is not even aware of the Establishment clause, how on earth can anyone want to elect her? I wouldn't want to even sit next to her, because my patience with her stupidity would wear thin.

Does that make me an elitist?

I wonder why intellectuals are respected in Europe, but are seen as out of touch by Americans.

Great, provocative piece.

Posted by: lorraine6 | October 19, 2010 12:37 PM
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