Heroism, Timing Help McCain’s Campaign

Heroism, Timing Help McCain’s Campaign

Matthew J. Tinguely and Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
March 5, 2000

Despite the overwhelming support of elected Republican leaders and the Republican establishment for the candidacy of George W. Bush, the insurgent John McCain catapulted into the national spotlight with primary wins in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Arizona.

Polls released last week show McCain running well ahead of Bush in a hypothetical two-way race against likely Democratic nominee Al Gore.

What are we to make of McCain’s extraordinary political capital? After all, not too long ago the installation of Bush at the top of the Republican ticket in November was thought to be a mere formality — more a matter of coronation than nomination.

What drives the McCain political machine? Two words: “hero” and “personality.”

American voters are already familiar with McCain’s compelling life story as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, as related in his 1999 autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers.”

But if wartime heroics and sacrifice were the cardinal qualifications for president of the United States, McCain would be merely one among many viable contenders.

More substantially, in the postwar era Vietnam was the seminal event in the American people’s eroding trust in government, catalyzed by the corrosive drip-drip-drip of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Zippergate.

Enter personality. Political psychologist Stanley Renshon places these political dynamics in psychological perspective in his 1996 book, “High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition.”

Taking a developmentalist view of public psychology, Renshon proposes that each era has its own particular developmental crisis — as he calls it, a “basic public dilemma.” In our time, Renshon reasons, the basic public dilemma is “a decline in confidence and trust in public leadership and institutions,” creating, in Renshon’s words, an “era of doubt.”

Implicit in Renshon’s work is the assumption that our choice of leaders reflects our assessment of the candidate’s character and his or her ability to deal with the basic public dilemma.

That raises two questions: Why has John McCain been a beneficiary of this historical trend in citizen psychology? and Can McCain ride this cultural tide all the way into the Oval Office?

McCain has shrewdly picked up on the defining feature of contemporary public psychology and turned it into the central theme of his campaign: reform. Moreover, he has cultivated a political persona that showcases his ability to deal with the basic public dilemma — as it happens, a persona congruent with his underlying character.

A point that is often poorly understood is that character is not about the polished veneer of pleasant sociability and idealistic concern that comes so easily to accomplished politicians. Character, fundamentally, is about deeply etched, ingrained personality traits.

John McCain is a dauntless character — an adventurous, daring personality type attracted to challenge and undeterred by risk and harm.

Dauntless personalities are original, independent-minded and unconventional. They take clear stands on issues that matter, bolstered by the personal skills and talents to prevail. And they are unconstrained. They express their thoughts and impulses directly, sometimes in rash and precipitous fashion, and generally without regret.

Dauntless personalities are nonconformists first and foremost, and disdainful of traditional ideals and values — in short, the ideal type to run on a platform of government reform.

On a sobering note, dauntless personalities are fundamentally driven by self-serving motives, though capable of incidentally advancing social causes in the service of their own ambition. Perhaps it is indicative of the pervasiveness of our “era of doubt” that this seems perfectly on par in the politics of “public service.”

As a senator, John McCain has shown his colors as a dauntless character. He has spurned party leaders and voted as he pleased, which has not exactly endeared him to his colleagues in the Senate.

In one memorable case, McCain voted against keeping Marines in Lebanon, in defiance of the party line. That decision signaled a willingness on his part to go against the grain.

McCain’s proclivity for straying from the fold has earned him a reputation as a maverick, an attitude clearly evident today in his willingness to oppose Bush, a candidate who has garnered formidable support among the Republican establishment.

McCain’s reform message is amplified by the persuasive skills of his dauntless, actively independent personality pattern. People who fit this profile are almost invariably fine-tuned to the subtleties of human interaction, keenly aware of the moods and feelings of others, and skilled at manipulating others’ thoughts and feelings.

In particular, these personalities are adept at exploiting for their own purposes the foibles and sensitivities of others. Not only have these characteristics figured prominently in mobilizing public support, they also have paid dividends in media relations, boosting, in turn, McCain’s public support.

On the campaign trail McCain has permitted the press unparalleled access. He has shown himself to be attuned to reporters’ needs and is skilled at stroking their egos. This is not to suggest a character flaw on the part of McCain, for these personality skills are what successful politics is all about. At issue are troubling questions about objective reporting and the independence of the media.

While McCain’s dauntless pattern has been his greatest political asset in promoting his candidacy, ironically, these very traits also make him somewhat prone to ethical transgression and misconduct — which, after all, is the very stuff of the present “era of doubt.”

In office, as on the campaign trail, the venturesome, bold, risk-taking behaviors of these personalities frequently contain the seeds of their own undoing. But the greater irony is this: For voters searching for more responsible, conscientious, self-controlled leadership in the aftermath of the Clinton era, the answer may be found in a surprising place.

Though viewed by some as Clinton’s co-conspirator, in terms of character and personality Al Gore — a conscientious introvert — is the real “anti-Clinton” among the current slate of presidential candidates.

Matt Tinguely is a senior biology/pre-med major from Harwood, N.D. Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, directs the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics. Deven Carlson and John Kuzma contributed to this article.