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Why Are All the Candidates Talking About Addiction?

Twenty years ago, scoring political points with personal tales of drug-addicted relatives would have been frowned upon. Now, everybody from Donald Trump to Jeb Bush is doing it.

Kayana Szymczak, Scott Olson, Matthew Cavanaugh, Joe Raedle / Getty

In the final days before the New Hampshire primary, no fewer than five Republican candidates were telling stories about how drug addiction had touched their families. Donald Trump talked about his brother, Fred, who died in 1981 from complications of alcoholism, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “He got hooked and there was nothing, there was nothing we could do about it.” Ted Cruz spun stories on the trail about his sister, who died from an overdose. At a New Hampshire town hall, Jeb Bush choked up recounting how his daughter, Noelle, who spent time in jail after smuggling crack cocaine into her Orlando drug-treatment center, “spiraled out of control.” Throughout the cycle, Chris Christie has given touching speeches about his mother and her lifelong struggle to quit smoking.

Back in November, shortly after a video of the New Jersey governor talking about his mother went viral, Jeff Greenfield argued persuasively at Politico that demographic trends could explain the softened Republican rhetoric on drugs. “Violent crime, the urban kind that fixated voters in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has dropped precipitously,” he wrote. “Heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, but it has skyrocketed among whites.” With addiction no longer an issue linked primarily to urban crime and the black community in the minds of Republican voters, GOP candidates could now shift away from promising swift retribution for drug abusers.

Greenfield’s argument is persuasive about why it’s now safe for Republicans to sound “soft” on drug abuse, but it fails to address a larger question: When did it become OK, even standard practice, for presidential candidates to use their family members’ personal travails to score political points? Twenty years ago, stories like Trump’s or Bush’s would have prompted swift pushback. When Al Gore gave an intensely personal speech accepting the vice presidential nomination at the 1992 Democratic convention, recounting how he stayed with his young son in the hospital after he got in a car accident, he faced blowback for exploiting a family crisis. In the Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson called it “gut wrenching to see somebody read a description of an accident like that off a teleprompter in front of millions of people for political gain.” Four years later at the 1996 Democratic convention, when Gore spoke about watching his sister succumb to lung cancer, conservative writer Paul Sperry called the speech “yet another case of milking a family tragedy to score political points.” 

Far from being criticized for exploiting family tragedy to score political points, the 2016 presidential candidates are rewarded for their candor. When Christie gave an emotional plea for drug rehabilitation at a New Hampshire town hall last November, the video went viral. Within days, more than 6.5 million people had watched him talk about his mother trying to quit smoking; aside from his takedown of Marco Rubio at last Saturday’s debate, it was arguably the high point of Christie’s now-suspended campaign. Similarly, when Jeb Bush spoke about addiction, liberals like Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire hailed his efforts, and voters deemed his performance “authentic.” 

Why are we eating up these stories? Maybe it’s because the modern news cycle has forced candidates to grow more and more scripted—and, as a result, left voters hungrier for moments of real human emotion. These family narratives offer a relatively risk-free way to engage voters starved for an emotional connection to the candidates. 

Voters are now accustomed to seeing the personal lives of public figures chronicled on Facebook, Twitter, and reality TV, and apparently they want something similar from their politicians. People have signed up in droves to follow the presidential contenders on Snapchat and Instagram, hoping for a glimpse behind their public personas. Hillary Clinton now has 786,000 followers on Instagram, and Donald Trump has nearly a million. 

You can date the obsession with the political figures’ personal lives at least back to the 1990s. The Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton affair whetted the public appetite for intimate details about elected officials—and lessened the shock value of personal revelations. In 2000, George W. Bush translated his struggle to overcome alcoholism into a born-again success story, and unlike Gore, he benefitted from it. As Josiah Hesse of The Fix points out, “his base, consisting largely of evangelicals, romanticized the image of a reformed drunkard, the prodigal son asking for forgiveness for his past transgressions.” 

Those episodes coincided with the Internet going mainstream. Information was being passed more rapidly than ever before, further heightening the desire for personal stories from the candidates and their families. But at the same time, the candidates were beginning to appear less authentically emotional on the campaign trail than they once were. The modern news cycle has imposed something like a gag order on what candidates say and do. With trackers and journalists at every stop on the campaign trail, ready to post any offhand comment to Twitter or YouTube, there’s a greater risk in going off-script and getting “real.” Candidates are spending more than ever on campaign ads, glossy spots where candidates can choose every word to their liking.

Marco Rubio has now come to symbolize this phenomenon. A career politician who had been running for office since he was 26, the Florida senator is relentlessly on message. He relies on glossy, unexceptional campaign ads to drum up support. He tends to repeat the same rehearsed talking points. Consultants love candidates who do that. But after Rubio regurgitated one of those talking points no fewer than four times in the last Republican debate and was pointedly called out on it by Christie, it became a serious—maybe even fatal—liability for the senator now known as “Marco Roboto.”

Meanwhile, those who do open up with genuine emotion are rewarded for it. Consider Trump, whose approach has been the opposite of Rubio’s. His campaign rhetoric would have been shocking and likely disqualifying 20 years ago. In uncensored speeches, Trump talks about himself constantly, personalizing his political stances and airing flagrantly bombastic statements about immigrants, Republican rivals, and war heroes like John McCain. But voters today are so frustrated with scripted politicians like Rubio and so hungry for authenticity—or what sounds like it—that they’re relishing Trump’s brashness rather than finding it inappropriate. 

Back in November, when Christie began speaking about his mother’s cigarette addiction, it seemed he too had cracked the code for a creating a genuine moment that voters would latch onto. Addiction has become a pressing concern in New Hampshire, a state where heroin overdose rates nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. As Alex Shephard wrote during the last Republican debate, “Nearly every Republican candidate has told a story like this over the past week for one very cynical reason: New Hampshire currently has a heroin epidemic, and nearly half of the state’s residents know someone who has struggled with addiction.”

Although addiction had particular political resonance in New Hampshire, the remaining candidates will likely continue to tell these stories in coming primary contests. Nevada, which holds caucuses later this month, has the fourth-highest drug overdose rate nationwide, higher even than New Hampshire. Oklahoma and Tennessee, which both have Super Tuesday primaries on March 1, also have high drug overdose rates

Plus, the candidates have thus far showed little knack for finding other ways to show their human sides. There is no real downside to talking about addiction, now that people no longer think the topic is too personal or distasteful for the campaign trail. Talking about other intimate family details, on the other hand, could backfire or blow up on social media in a way candidates want to avoid. A relative’s addiction is largely safe territory, and the candidates will probably stick with it. 

But with all the candidates seemingly scrambling to find a family member whose substance-abuse problems can showcase their human side, it ultimately defeats the purpose. By primary day in New Hampshire, so many Republicans were touting similar stories about addiction that even when those stories conveyed authentic doses of humanity, they’d begun to look staged and strategic. Because everybody, it seems, has one.