Making sure you have the right ‘People Gear’

Our Campaign 2008 Primer for Pols and Pundits begins today by focusing on one of the most basic, yet least understood, cogs of a winning presidential bandwagon: The People Gear.

Every successful candidate must possess a power-gliding, fully automatic people gear. It can’t be bought belatedly along the campaign trail. It can’t be designed and retrofitted by one of those Campaigns R Us strategists-for-hire. It is the gear that enables the best politicians to relate smoothly, instinctively, personally with people of all persuasions. And it has to be there from the get-go.

Some have it, many don’t. Bill Clinton had the very best people gear in contemporary politics — as did Ronald Reagan, before him. It enabled them to reach out to and inspire people who did not agree with them on many issues.

Among the recent politicians who lacked any people gear: John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale. Perhaps you see a pattern emerging here. Time and again, along presidential trails past, they proved unable to relate to ordinary people who might be just a few degrees outside their ideological hard core. They could not inspire trust among the swayable masses outside the left-right margins, common-sense people who were looking for a leader they could comfortably follow.

So, who on the Great Mentioners’ 2008 presidential list seems to possess this requisite people gear? Among the Most Mentioned Republicans, the pre-positional frontrunner, John McCain, showed long ago that he has one (although sometimes of late he seems to be trying too hard to downshift back into it). Rudy Giuliani showed ages ago that he has the sort of people gear that enables him to turn on people in person who would be turned off if he had only his issue position papers to speak in his behalf. Mitt Romney may be another who has a people gear and knows how to use it.

Among the Most Mentioned-Democrats, we can all see that Barack Obama clearly possesses a grand people gear. It has moved him from the virtually Unmentioned to the Oft-Mentioned in what seems like just weeks.

But what about the Democrats’ early frontrunner? No matter how many times we have looked at Hillary Clinton, our unanswered question remains not whether she possesses a people gear that is as politically masterful as that of her husband, but whether she has a people gear at all. She can seem very much at ease and in control when she is in her own political element. But in other unscripted circumstances, she can seem strangely flinty, unable to relate to (let alone inspire) the people in her midst.

Rewind your mental newsreel back to that memorable event last Feb. 7, in the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church at Lithonia, Georgia, that was both the funeral and celebration of Coretta Scott King. The president of the United States and three former presidents came to speak in praise of this civil rights icon. All four presidents were accompanied by their wives. Three of the First Ladies remained seated in the congregation as their husbands spoke. Sen. Clinton accompanied her husband to the rostrum and stood at his side as he spoke. Bill Clinton was masterful (as he often has been in black churches in his native South) inspiring cheers, tears, ovations, even laughter. But as he spoke, his wife, repeatedly kept nodding yes — stiff nods, jerky nods, obviously-made-for-TV nods. The image she conveyed was of an ambitious politician trying get a piece of that spotlight. Wrong in every way.

Being a senator and presidential prospect, as well as former First Lady, Clinton is often in an unusual circumstance. But if the unusual circumstances were reversed (as they have been of late) — if Hillary were giving the eulogy while Bill was in an unspeaking supporting role, his people gear would have shifted him into a respectful posture, either out of the spotlight or (being a sharper politician) at the outer edge of it. He would have subtly evinced the barest nod or smile to respectfully signal his appreciation of her words and that moment.

On that day, clearly, Hillary Clinton had no functioning people gear. Perhaps she really has none at all; perhaps she has one but still isn’t relaxed enough in the public eye to let it automatically take over and do its thing.

Sen. Clinton knows better than most that presidential campaign trails are filled with unexpected twists, turns, ups and downs. It remains to be seen whether she has the sort of built-in people gear that will work smoothly in the drive-train of a 2008 model presidential bandwagon.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)