Is it too much to expect that a candidate for governor will seek much beyond getting elected, to actually mobilize our better angels?
A number of smart politicos I know have been impressed by Nick Kristof’s announcement video. One said, "He is a great storyteller." Agreed. Perhaps good enough to be elected governor. Perhaps not. More importantly, what can we tell so far about what kind of governor he might be?
The video and his book, Tightrope, do establish his empathy for those left behind in the economy that serves us (the likely readers of this) so well. The clips in his announcement video about his experience in Darfur and other tragic places leave no question about his core values.
Can he be elected?
He starts with some strong plusses. He has a compelling story to tell about what ails America. He tells the story well. Like Adlai Stevenson in the Fifties, he will be adored by the liberal intelligentsia. His roots are in rural Oregon and he will be hard to label as overly “woke.” Money will be no problem. Well…the amount he can raise will be no problem, where it comes from may be.
He appears to be running as an outsider—a non-career politician, which is a pretty easy choice these days. Ride the wave of discontent. (Betsy Johnson is trying to catch the same wave. Could get crowded in the general election.)
There are also obstacles for him.
We have a few examples of outsiders who have won governorships using discontent as fuel—Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California—but both were well established, well-known residents of their states. They did not have to buy name recognition.
Tina Kotek, backed by public union money and organizing, will be formidable. She has solid liberal credentials and a record as an effective legislator. How does Kristof run against her?
Some smart-money consultants would say, run on your own story, that of the non-politician who truly gets what ails us. In which case he leaves himself open to questions about where has he been as Oregon drifted into needing an outsider. That is a vulnerability even if discontent remains rocket fuel for him.
The notion that he is a savior returning to rescue us can easily be turned into a series of “Where’s Waldo” ads featuring Kristof in Darfur with a chorus of Yamhill residents singing “Nick who?” We are already hearing murmurs of that.
And I harbor a suspicion that his erudition and compassion, so welcomed by readers of The New York Times, might come across as condescension. I once asked some rural conservatives why they were so down on Obama: “He thinks he’s so smart, he talks down to us like he’s a college professor and we’re a bunch of yokels.”
Unless Kristof finds some way to connect with the many who feel—rightly or wrongly—left behind by our globalized and increasingly diverse modern world, his compassion may brand him as just another bleeding-heart liberal. Does he care as much about the people of Dufur as he does about those in Darfur? His big out-of-state donations aren’t helping dispel doubts about his Oregon bona fides.
Which brings us to the junction point between his electability and whether he should be elected.
At this moment of social and political fracturing and division, effective governance may start with great listening rather than great storytelling. Normally I would jump for joy to have a leader with his capacity to tell it like we long to hear it. I’m just not sure that is enough today, either for election or for governing.
Personally, I am on board with his story and willing to wait to hear more about the agenda he constructs. Do I have hope that we can do a real course correction as he hopes while Oregon and the nation remain as tribalized and divided as we are? Not so much. A super majority of Democrats in the State Legislature is one thing. A broad enough and deep enough public commitment to change things is another.
Is it too much to expect that a candidate for governor will seek much beyond getting elected, to actually mobilize our better angels? After all, you have to get elected before you can govern.
Sure, you can get elected and worry about government later. But, those we should elect are those who use campaigns to build their capacity to govern--those who increase their political capital through their campaigns.
Election after election we see people taking office, after treading the waters of discontent and dislike of the other side, without finding firmer ground from which to govern.
OK, you say, but that’s just where we are at this moment of fragmentation. We can’t control what extremes on both sides will do. I say that what we can try to do is shrink their number. We cannot begin to do that without listening first, giving a little empathy both to the left behind and to those feeling left behind by the new globalized economy. For a while, Kristof would do well to spend more time listening than story-telling.
On the question of whether Kristof knows anything about actually governing, my friend John Russell has pointed to Tom McCall as an example of a non-politician who emerged as a great leader. My take on that is that McCall had been telling the Oregon story for many years as a journalist. Before he ran for office he had branded himself as the quintessential Oregonian, passionate about livability. Not sure he even knew where Darfur is. Maybe he is a good example of emergent leadership from a non-politician, but Ventura and Schwarzenegger are counter examples who ended up leading largely by following strong leadership within their legislatures.
It has been unfortunately forgotten that in his famous address to the Legislature about the “shameless threat to…our quality of life,” Gov. McCall also said:
Quality of life is the sum total of the fairness of our tax structure; the caliber of our homes; the cleanliness of our air and water; and the provision of affirmative assistance to those who cannot assist themselves. True quality is absent if we allow social suffering to abide in an otherwise pristine environment.
In Portland 2.0, a conference about Portland’s past and future that I organized several years ago, I tried to make a big point of asking “Do we care as much about the people with whom we share this place as the place itself, as much about our neighbors as our neighborhoods?” Kristof challenges us in the same way. It is a worthy challenge, one that is only an obscure footnote in the mythology of McCall. Here’s hoping Nick is up to it.
The Oregon Way welcomes thoughtful election analysis. If you have a deliberative piece on a candidates or candidates for any statewide race, please send them to Kevin: email@example.com
Native Oregonian with more than 50 years experience in public affairs, including political and policy positions with two governors, a US cabinet secretary and Congressman, and owning a public opinion research firm.