One of the candidates currently seeking the presidency has branded himself a "maverick." In fact, he's even gone so far as to claim he is the original maverick (sorry, Tom Cruise).
The maverick, we are told, exercises independent judgment. He is not afraid to stand up to large special interest groups, lobbyists, pundits and even members of his own party. When something needs to be said, the maverick says it. The maverick is not concerned with political expediency, only with "putting the country first."
At first, this sounds nice, even admirable. But there are some drawbacks to maverick-ness.
The true maverick operates from an ideologically neutral position. Some politicians brand themselves as defenders of the middle class or proponents of limited government. The maverick does not allow his brand to be burdened by those sorts of principles. This explains why the maverick can flip-flop on issues with major ideological implications (such asthe Bush tax cuts).
Many people find it attractive that the maverick is not beholden to ideology. I, for one, do not. A politician's political ideology tells us how he or she will approach unforeseen problems. The maverick is less concerned with developing a coherent governing ideology and more concerned with fighting entrenched power simply for the sake of it.
It can be difficult to hold the maverick accountable. The primary measure of a true maverick is not what he has accomplished. Rather, the maverick wants to be measured by which powerful opponents he has taken on.
Yet the maverick can claim to be opposing anyone at any time: members of his own party, special interests, the media, Wall Street, Washington, Northeastern liberal elites, anti-American members of Congress, socialists and even domestic terrorists.
It's not, "What have you done for me lately?" -- it is, "Who have you opposed lately?" For instance, the maverick vehemently opposes earmarked spending, but he seems to have forgotten that earmarks only account for about one percent of the federal budget.
The maverick can get a little self-righteous. But who can blame him? After all, he's the only one who hasn't been corrupted by power, corrupted by greed, brainwashed or manipulated. The maverick is on a perpetual crusade.
The maverick wants us to trust his personal judgment. If the maverick shows calmness, poise and presence of mind, then it might make sense to elect the maverick. But if the maverick is erraticand known for a bad temper, then it's reasonable to have some second thoughts.
In opposition to the maverick, I'd like to propose an alternative political brand: the rational compromiser. Sure, it doesn't evoke the same gut reaction as "the maverick," but hear me out.
The rational compromiser has an ideology -- but the important point is that the rational compromiser is up-front about it. He is very clear about the priorities that he consistently looks to uphold. And he wants to communicate the considerations that led him to those priorities in the first place.
The rational compromiser understands the complexities of individual identity. It is less important for the rational compromiser to group and label his opponents, and more important for him to find whatever common ground might exist.
This explains why the rational compromiser has had some sketchy friends. But keep in mind that despite his unseemly associations, the rational compromiser has never -- not once -- replicated the actions or attitudes of these associates.
The rational compromiser has some advanced academic experience. In other words, he has had practice conversing with the types of experts who are crucial to the polcymaking process. He knows how to question those experts, and he knows when and how to defer to them.
At times, the rational compromiser might seem too aloof or emotionless. But it would be a mistake to assume his steadiness implies a lack of passion. If you look just a little closer, you'll see the passion, courage and conviction.
In America today, the maverick is a wildly successful political brand. Yet a politician who branded himself as "the original rational compromiser" would probably be laughed at.
I'm not saying that my descriptions of these two political brands correspond perfectly to the two candidates in this year's election. But nowadays, it seems that brands (more than ideas) are key to winning elections. And if that's the case, then we need to seriously rethink what we look for in a political brand in this and future elections.