In the summer of 1999, then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a “listening tour” throughout New York State to vet a potential candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Some variation of her approach has now become the standard for most prospective candidates for high office.
Listening—although important to any campaign—has become the NutraSweet substitute for authentic leadership and statesmanship. It’s technically not “stumping” in the traditional sense, nor does it capture the essence of a “barnstorm” or “whistle stop.” No, these talk-show styled conversations with voters are a kind of expanded focus group; a trial run, with plenty of time to pull the plug.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians seeking a defined vision from candidates, these “listening tours” have effectively neutered candidates. Rarely do we see people “considering a run” willing to brandish convictions or articulate reasons for running for office.
The professionals advising this post-Clinton crop of political aspirants urge clients to steer clear of bold, risky and potentially divisive issues. The formula calls for an empathetic, yet non-committal candidate—arms folded, head nodding, topped off with that placid, pleasant smile.
On this kind of political playing field, so-called “wedge” issues are delivered in targeted direct mail pieces and regional ad buys. A candidate’s convictions and principles—if any—are spoken only in whispered tones, with cameras stopped and reporters held safely “off the record.”
No pledge to never raise taxes, no specific commitments to cut or limit spending, expand school choice or reform Pennsylvania’s jackpot legal system.
For consultants advising the host of “unofficial” candidates for governor trekking across Pennsylvania this year, their job is to deliver predictability. The goal is to prevent any spontaneity by a candidate that could later be spun into a thirty-second attack spot by an opponent down in the polls and desperate.
Careful, cautious, tepid, broad, inclusive, safe—these are the ingredients of a listening tour, all carefully calibrated to maintain a candidate’s “viability.” Details will follow, they say. For today, just consider them “opposed” to the incumbent’s handling of fill-in-the-blank.
But while voters appreciate a good listening session from politicians, they respond best to the candidate with a clear sense of self—a candidate with vision, and a plan. Campaigns should be about contrast, competing ideas and grand calls for change and new direction—real solutions for real problems.
More than being heard, Pennsylvania voters want to be led. They want straight talk from prospective candidates for governor, not finger-in-the-wind indecision on whether or not to run or what positions to take. They want to know where a candidate stands in clear, unequivocal language. Anything less—even in these early stages of the gubernatorial race—will likely indicate shades of the pale, bland leadership style they’ll take to the governor’s mansion.
Pennsylvanians are ready for a real gubernatorial campaign. They want a candidate willing to confront our high taxes, runaway state spending, shrinking job opportunities and failing schools. They’re ready for candidates to speak clearly—discarding the congested code of political speak. They’ll follow a vision worth following—if only someone would articulate it.
While there is certainly a time to listen, Pennsylvania now needs someone willing to lead. NutraSweet candidates need not apply. We want the real thing.
Jeff Coleman is vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.