Confidence, Conviction and Campaign 2012

BY Gwen Ifill  April 22, 2011 at 1:11 PM EDT

I once covered a politician who was a very certain man.

He remained convinced throughout his public career that he knew best – certainly better than any naysayer, political opponent or reporter.

His certainty got things done, but you had to accept that his priorities and values were the correct ones. He acted first and accepted — but did not welcome — questions later. He was a Democrat, but only because that’s how you got elected in Baltimore. And he was unwavering.

When William Donald Schaefer, a former mayor and Maryland governor, died this week at age 89, I was reminded what it was like to report on someone like that. You had to accept that he would get in your face at the drop of a hat, but it was never boring.

We now know that the mayor-turned-governor was not always right, and that he had critical blind spots. But he also possessed a knack for inspiring as many people as he infuriated. His gift for, and insistence on, certainty — leavened with a heft dose of populist brio — appealed to a vast swath of the electorate.

In the years since I covered Gov. Schaefer, I have come to appreciate straight talkers. Even if the answer is evasive, there is something about a declarative sentence that can be very attractive in a murky world. The Congressional Tea Party caucus has discovered this.

And it might explain, at least in part, why experimental candidates like Donald Trump do so well in early polls. I’d wager that most people can’t tell you what the New York real estate magnate would do about the economy or Libya, but they like that he seems so direct about everything.

That remains part of Sarah Palin’s appeal as well, and it is an elusive quality that every politician strives to master.

That is also part of the reason that, when President Obama delivers a speech or responds to reporters’ questions these days, he invariably uses the word “confident” or “certain” to describe his plans and intentions.

And it’s also why when Republicans criticize the president, much of the critique often boiling down to one argument: we don’t know who he is.

That’s the horse Trump is riding when he questions the president’s birthplace. It’s what Mitt Romney is getting at when he declares the administration’s Libya policy “mission muddle.”

Uncertainty can be a powerful meme. Ask John Kerry, or John McCain, or almost any other defeated presidential aspirant. Their most memorable stumbles came when they allowed themselves to be portrayed as flip floppers who changed positions for political reasons.

So, RIP, William Donald Schaefer – a man who knew what he thought (even if it was proved wrong), knew how to get it done (or force it through) and showed me how to recognize that sometimes, there is political value in being absolutely, completely sure.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.