Simple pandering or clues to core beliefs?
"Filipino Tilt-a-Whirl operators are this nation's backbone." Congressional candidate Cam Brady in the movie "The Campaign."
Pandering is a staple of politics. Candidates try to endear themselves to particular groups by contouring their message to coincide with the views of that group.
A little pandering is relatively harmless. When a presidential candidate during a campaign stop at a local diner proclaims that the chili dogs there are the best in the country, what's the harm?
But what happens when the pandering is about substantive issues?
At a fundraiser last May, Mitt Romney, when asked how he would win in November, made his now famous "47 percent" comment. He suggested that 47 percent of the country that supports President Obama see themselves as victims "who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
The room was filled with well-heeled donors. Perhaps Romney believed his off-the-cuff division of the country into makers and takers would appeal to them. Tell them what they want to hear, collect the checks, and get out the door.
But it's also possible that the statement represented Romney's true self. Romney's critics believe that's the candidate's core belief - that too much of the responsibility for the have-nots is falling on the shoulders of the haves.
Tuesday night, a video surfaced of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007 speaking to a largely black audience at Hampton University in Virginia. Obama, using an informal, southern cadence, suggested that the federal government denied additional assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans because most of the victims were black.
"The people down in New Orleans they (the federal government) don't care about as much," Obama said,
That's a serious charge. . . and the crowd loved it.
Was Obama simply telling the black pastors what they wanted to hear or did he actually believe that the federal government's response to Katrina was affected by racism?
There is a difference; the first is shameless pandering while the second speaks to a core belief.
The spin machines further complicate matters. Romney didn't completely back away from the 47 percent comment, but did say it was "not elegantly stated."
The Obama campaign did not address the content of the 2007 video, instead saying its release was "wrong" and "irresponsible."
No matter how long a campaign drags on, voters still may be left wondering what a candidate really stands for. At the behest of consultants, candidates eschew controversial positions, instead offering catchy sound bites and oversimplifications mixed with, yes, a healthy dose of pandering.
As a result, our politics are dumbed down as candidates tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.
And that's a shame, because it stands in the way of an informed electorate, which is part of the foundation of our democracy.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.