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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
5 Sep 2015
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Elections Are Not About the Candidates


After following the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, you could not be faulted for concluding that the race is about U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the remaining baker's dozen of declared candidates. You could not be faulted, but you would be wrong.

In spite of the worst efforts of those of us with press passes, political campaigns — most especially presidential campaigns — are not about the candidates. Presidential campaigns are really about the voters, the country and the future.

One candidate who understands that fundamental truth about politics is the talented senior U.S. senator from Connecticut and declared Democratic presidential candidate, Chris Dodd. After last week's Washington meeting of the firefighters' union, where 11 presidential candidates appeared and where nobody won more cheers and standing ovations from the firefighters in the hall than he did, Dodd put it this way: "Candidates always think elections are about them. They're wrong. Elections are about people."

To explain, Dodd told an anecdote about President Franklin Roosevelt's funeral and the outpouring of public sorrow. A reporter approached one mourner whose tears flowed without stop and asked if he had known FDR. "I didn't know him, but he knew me." The Connecticut Democrat added, "That's the question voters ask of the candidate: 'Do you know who I am?'"

In a Democratic race dominated in press coverage by U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, white-haired Chris Dodd is a distinct dark-horse. But he easily passes the first test for electing a president authored by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater.

After running the winning 1988 presidential campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush, Atwater sized up the prospects of aspiring GOP nominees.

He was clearly impressed by the discipline and extraordinary organizational skills of then-U.S. senator from Texas Phil Gramm, commenting that he had never seen anyone with greater discipline and determination, especially about Gramm's almost enjoying making those fund-raising calls that candidates avoid and dislike.

But Atwater was convinced, correctly it turned out, that Gramm would never be elected to the White House. Why? Because, according to Atwater, American voters insist upon a "level of likeability" in their presidents, and crusty Phil Gramm did not pass the likeability test.

Chris Dodd is immensely likeable. As it was observed about another Democratic dark-horse: "Harry Truman was comfortable being Harry Truman. He liked being Harry Truman. He never thought of being anyone else but Harry Truman." The same could be said with equal accuracy about Chris Dodd.

At 62, and after 26 years in the Senate, he knows who he is and what he believes. An intensely loyal Democrat and former party chairman, he has been a truly bipartisan legislator, collaborating with Republican colleagues including Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kit Bond of Missouri, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and former Sens. Mike Dewine of Ohio and Bob Dole of Kansas. Dodd wrote and passed the Family and Medical Leave Act and has been a champion on children's issues, most prominently the preservation and extension of Head Start.

It's going to take more than likeability and a deep legislative record for Dodd to challenge the Democratic front-runners. He's going to have to get or make his own break. But if voters in 2008 decide what they really want in the White House is a leader who is smart, funny and likeable, and who believes that presidential elections are about the people, the country and the future — not about the candidates — then they owe it to themselves to get to know Mr. Dodd of Connecticut.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




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