If you lack a unique, differentiating value, your only play is price.
In business, you command the price play by being very, very big and very, very efficient. In presidential politics, you’re unique or you close up shop and go home. Commodities don’t win executive offices. Usually.
Even though it’s early, only four Republican candidates for president have differentiating value propositions:
* Ben Carson * Donald Trump * Carly Fiorina * Ted Cruz
Everybody else is a commodity, especially Jeb Bush. (But watch Bush.)
Two stories put this idea in my head. First, Rand Paul’s campaign is imploding (h/t Chris Arps). Second, Scott Walker seems to be imitating Donald Trump. When you’re mimicking your opponent, you’re in trouble.
I could probably make a case for Mike Huckabee being unique if Ben Carson were not in the race. Huckabee is a fabulous speaker, especially live. He has the best comedic timing I’ve seen in a politician, maybe ever. He’s one of the few politicians I’ve seen who can deliver a canned joke perfectly. And he is sincere and humble in the process.
But Ben Carson is equally sincere and humble. While Carson may not have Huckabee’s delivery (yet), it’s impossible not to respect Dr. Carson’s decency and optimism. And that unifying optimism is Carson’s differentiator. Dr. Carson is the most comfortable in his own skin of all the candidates in the GOP race. He might have done well financially as a neurosurgeon, but no one doubts he would have worked just as hard to save lives for minimum wage. His life’s work involves improving people’s lives, especially those with little hope. That’s a life people can rally around. Ben Carson’s unique value proposition is unifying optimism.
The opposite of humble decency is Donald Trump. Trump is just plain rude. He’s the guy New York sends people to to learn how to perpetuate the New Yorker stereotype. While I might say that Rand Paul appears unprepared for this level of campaigning, Trump says, “Rand’s campaign is a total mess, and as a matter of fact, I didn’t know he had anybody left in his campaign to make commercials who are not currently under indictment!” Ba-ding! When I read that line, I hear Rodney Dangerfield’s voice. Sadly, in the age of Real Housewives, egomaniacal rudeness is a differentiator.
Perhaps the most fascinating candidate so far has been Carly Fiorina. Her performance in the undercard bout last week prompted me to dig into her conservative credentials. I trust that she is authentically conservative. As I wrote yesterday, I have a big question she must answer for me, but if her performance to this point is any indication, she’ll knock my question out of the park. That’s because Fiorina’s super power is communication. Carly Fiorina can distill complex issues to their essential qualities and explain them without demeaning her audience, even if they’re experts. That’s an indispensable skill for US President, if not for a candidate for president.
Finally, there’s Ted Cruz. Cruz is probably the best qualified candidate in the bunch. I should warn that “best qualified” is not the same as “likeliest to win” or even, necessarily, my favorite. Cruz has a big burden to overcome–a lot of people think there’s something creepy about him. That’s his challenge to overcome. But Cruz is cool in an early 1960s Hollywood way. Like George C. Scott in The Hustler. Not Paul Newman cool, but old school cool. It takes a cool cat to compliment Donald Trump when every political playbook since Caesar’s says to pile on. Cruz’s superpower is coolness.
That said, I still have a sinking feeling Jeb Bush will win the nomination. Yes, I said that Jeb Bush is undifferentiated. Yes, I said that commodity candidates don’t win presidential primaries. But it’s possible that my playbook is outdated. Maybe the power of money and monied interests is enough to overcome commodification in 2016. Jeb Bush is certainly the Walmart of GOP politics, and only a fool would bet against Bentonville, right?
I hope my playbook still works. Three of the four differentiated candidates seem like great choices for America. The fourth might have some good ideas, but a country that would have a rude egomaniac as president might be a country destined for a great fall. I wouldn’t want everyone in America to behave like Donald Trump, but if he were president, we’d have a hard time telling people to eschew rudeness.
Go ahead and hate me, Trump fans. America must be bigger and better. Cruz, Carson, or Fiorina seem able to restore American prestige and prosperity without becoming a nation of jerks in the process.
Who wants to find out, after all, that the “shining city on a hill” was actually just a louche casino.