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Social Intelligence and Politics: A (Big) Reason Why Charlie Baker Lost

April 16, 2011

 IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW OR WHAT YOU’VE DONE, BUT HOW YOU RELATE

At the conclusion of Dan Rea’s WBZ gubernatorial debate, he asked the three candidates—Deval Patrick, Charlie Baker, and Tim Cahill—a series of “yes” or “no” questions. In their responses, there would be no pontificating, no straddling both sides, just yes, or no. At one point, Rea asked, “Do you pledge to run no negative ads?”—not the best question, given the fact that all candidates had run a negative ad against their opponents at one point or another during the campaign, and, given the ugly and nasty nature of Massachusetts politics, would undoubtedly go hardcore negative over the final six weeks.

And yet: “Yes,” Deval Patrick loudly proclaimed, echoing a statement he had made during the summer —“we are going to run a positive campaign based on issues and facts.” Never mind that “Bay State Future,” a Democrat-backed 527, had begun running negative ads against Charlie that very day.

The “Independent,” Tim Cahill, was just as firm with his response: “Yes.”

Meanwhile, Charlie paused; after all, though technically not associated with the Baker campaign, the Republican Governor’s Association had run a barrage of negative ads against both Patrick and Cahill, and there were bound to be more. Plus Charlie didn’t want to dig himself in a hole; should the campaign choose to put together a negative ad, he wouldn’t want to be called out for being a hypocrite—or worse—a liar.

So he fumbled for a bit, wondering out-loud, “what determines whether or not an ad’s negative?” before settling on something along the lines of “I hope there aren’t but I can’t promise anything.”

And he was right—what is a negative ad? Is pointing out Deval Patrick’s eight tax hikes “negative” (as the governor would claim during the summer)? Charlie also acknowledged the fact that, yes, there probably would be ads that some would deem negative.

Yet it was the wrong the answer.

♦◊♦

In a sense, this small moment represented a microcosm of the entire campaign, where Charlie’s lack of political savvy cost him dearly.

Charlie Baker is not a politician; to his credit, he’s not good at lying. Deval Patrick is good at lying. Tim Cahill is good at lying. But Charlie Baker is not—and it hurt him. Dancing around an issue, trying to appease both sides—it almost never works.

But maybe it’s not about lying. Maybe everyone involved knows it’s a game, and so maybe it’s about being the best actor. If that’s the case, then Charlie Baker’s not a great actor.

Perhaps it has to do with their upbringings. In early October, Bella English of the Boston Globe wrote a feature on Charlie Baker’s childhood in Needham. She begins:

For Charles Baker, it couldn’t have been a more charmed childhood: loving parents, the homes in Needham, then in Rockport, the three boys who had jobs delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and pumping gas. The calendar was stuffed with sports, school performances, church choir, and family vacations. There was a family mutt named Sam Dog.

It’s a weirdly negative article—portraying his “Beaver Cleaver” upbringing in such a sunny light that it makes you almost gag. However while the piece certainly didn’t add substance to his candidacy, it may have provided a glimpse into why Charlie had such a hard time playing the role of “candidate.” Things were pretty “safe”—he had caring, loving parents, good relationships with his brothers, and the opportunity and privilege to attend Harvard was treated with a mystifying indifference. He never received great grades—mainly C’s at first—and only decided to improve his performance when he realized, “what the hell, this place is expensive, I should suck it up and do better.”

My point is this: when things are safe, and you’re very rarely outside of your comfort zone—either by choice or circumstance—skills of adaptation, by sheer lack of diverse experience, remain undeveloped. The assumption is that from childhood, to high school, to college, to business school, and then onto state government and Harvard Pilgrim, Charlie didn’t exactly put himself in uncomfortable situations. There was a lot of interaction with brilliant, driven, focused individuals, and it was all important for his professional development, but it left Charlie without a crucial trait of all successful politicians: high social intelligence.

The effort was there; the results, not so much

Psychologist Karl Albrecht has developed a theory where one’s social intelligence can be broken down into five basic skill categories (the acronym “S.P.A.C.E.”). There’s Situational Awareness, Presence, Authenticity, Clarity, and Empathy. Now, keep in mind, it’s your ability to exude the aforementioned qualities—not whether or not you actually possess them. You can appear empathetic but—in reality—not give a shit; you can seem authentic and be lying through your teeth.

Fast-forward to the campaign trail, where every day Charlie was on the radio, on TV, or meeting voters at fairs, town halls, and parades. In most of these situations, there’s no way to really sugarcoat it: he was awkward and uncomfortable to be around. He tried so hard, and he wanted it so badly, but there was always something missing in his speeches, his one-on-one interactions. It wasn’t overtly tangible, but it was there. In his answers to questions, he frequently rambled, getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of policy (lack of clarity); oftentimes a number of people would be waiting to shake his hand or meet him, but he’d be mired in a minutes-long conversation with a supporter (lack of situational awareness). Instead of telling the truth, he was coached by the spin squad to dance around issues like the Big Dig and the controversial Bill Hudak (lack of authenticity). When Jim Braude questioned Charlie about whether or not he supported 6th Congressional Republican candidate (and extreme, anti-Obama birther) Bill Hudak, it was almost painful to listen to:

Then, when you’re advertising the fact that you’re going to cut 5,000 state jobs (without specifying which ones, so every single state employee feels as though it could be him or her), you’re not going to really score any empathy points (of course, with his 6’5″ height, Charlie did perfectly fine in one category: Presence).

All of this is criticism of the candidate, not the person. It’s an unfortunate fact of politics: the best candidates are not always the best campaigners, and for this they pay dearly. I wish Charlie didn’t try so hard to be something he wasn’t, because people saw through it. Instead of being himself, he tried to be who they wanted him to be—sometimes it was New Jersey Chris Christie’s brash, no-nonsense rhetoric; other times it was version of Mitt Romney’s “Mr. Fix-it”  persona—but either way, to be something you’re not can be a very, very difficult thing to do. It takes a good politician to do it well. A guy like Deval Patrick.

After all, Deval Patrick had a different sort of “fairy tale” upbringing. He started out in the ghettos of Chicago’s South Side, only to earn a scholarship to the prestigious Milton Academy, followed by admission to Harvard University. Yet imagine those first days at Milton Academy—the culture shock of  having to navigate a sea of white faces—students whose daily struggle consisted of choosing what brand of cereal to eat for breakfast, and what color blazer to wear to school. How do you relate to these people? Make friends, please teachers? You have to adapt, adjust, approach social interactions with caution, send out feelers, see what works and what doesn’t. You learn how to relate.

Calm, cool, and assertive in front of any crowd

And that’s the core of Patrick’s political genius: whether it’s talking to a sea of union workers, angry over the casino stalemate and his implementation of civilian flaggers, he’ll fire right back: “With us, your voice, your needs your concern will be heard—work with us, and we will all win!” (i.e. I’m the best you’ve got!); in the backyard of a supporter’s mansion in Milton, he employs the soaring rhetoric that propelled him into office in 2006: “Our opponents would make other choices, choices that would take us back. We want to keep moving forward!” From there he’ll go to Tito Jackson’s Chicken Barbecue in Mattapan and speak before a largely African-American crowd (giving “props, as they say in the neighborhood”). He’ll finish the day at a board room at a Boston-based financial giant; this, too, is a comfortable setting for Patrick—after all, he spent years at Ameriquest and Coca-Cola. His social intelligence must be through the roof—and he has his own life story and experience to thank for that.

Not surprisingly, throughout the course of the campaign, my Democrat friends ate it up: he’s so genuine, he’s so warm and engaging, they gushed.

Or maybe he’s just a good actor, I’d think.

I wouldn’t fight or disagree with them—I’d generally agree with them. “That’s true, he is a great guy—but being a good guy doesn’t make you a good governor.” It was my way of gently urging them to look at the results—how anyone should be judged—rather than the demeanor, before making their decision.

Yet with a largely disinterested voter base, campaigns often come down to the sound bites: not only who has the best message or slogan, but also who seems warmer, who seems more genuine

If that’s the case, then Deval Patrick hit it out of the park.

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