04/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Psychology Of Endorsements

Q: Don't you get the idea that some sort of underlying psychology is at work in the way some politicians seem to be running away from the Clinton camp? Take Bill Richardson. He endorsed Barack Obama even though Bill Clinton made him ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy -and even flew all the way to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with him. I suppose it's possible Richardson just thinks Obama would make a better president than Hillary Clinton, but I can't help feeling that something else drove his choice -he could have stayed neutral, after all. Can this be the political version of a normal young adult's separation from either actual parents or parent figures?

A: This isn't the first time I have heard the separation theory cited as a main motivator behind many a politician's --not just Richardson's --decision to choose Obama over Hillary. In fact, I think the people who raise that possibility are being more than interesting, but astute as well. I, of course, love looking at politics as something more than a logical process. As I have previously written, I think it is helpful to apply a little Psych 101 to politics and look at the unconscious motivations and personality types of the politician. Seen this way, what a politician says can have multiple levels of meaning. And, I have written we also need to look at how our own motivations will affect how we respond to what a politician is saying. That way, our own needs and psychological expectations are understood as a part of this complex interaction between the electorate and the politician.

That being said - even in politics - we have to bear in mind Freud's injunction that "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar." Perhaps Bill Richardson, after much thought, decided that Barack Obama is best for this country. Perhaps he also didn't think that coming out for Obama now and breaking with the Clintons would give him a better shot at the vice presidential nomination. Let's just accept that Richardson truly believes Obama is the better choice. I am not cynical enough to believe that cannot be the case. Still...

So, here goes. The theory of separation is intriguing. What this implies is that both Clintons became the familial equivalent of parents to the entire Democratic Party. Bill certainly was considered, by virtue of having been president, the head of the party for a time. (Normally, that would have been John Kerry, the most recent nominee, but the role didn't suit him and he didn't suit the party.) Clinton was widely accepted as smart, charismatic -- and a leader. He was also accepted as a brilliant political animal. In other words, people looked up to him.

As for Hillary, she too was widely accepted as smart, although not as charismatic and able to lead as her husband. But she was always touted as Bill's alter ego, his number one aide, his one-woman kitchen cabinet in the kitchen as well as the bedroom. We have all seen pictures of her leaning in to him and whispering in his ear, imparting words of advice that were always characterized as brilliant. So, the Clintons were more than just a political couple. They were the heads of the party. They were the parents.

Parents play parental roles. Remember the scorn heaped upon George Stephanopoulos when he dared to leave the family nest, after being with the Clintons from the early days of the presidential campaign? Whether Stephanopoulos was prepared for what he got I don't know. But he certainly had what it took to separate himself from them and write the sort of book that would dismay, if not hurt, any parent-- not something a still attached and needy child would do.

Have all the others who have recently jumped off of the Clinton bandwagon also separated from a parent? It is a possibility, and makes for an intriguing way to look at the numerous occurrences of "betrayal" -Teddy Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and certainly more to come - a significant movement away from the family home and hearth.

But one has to also take into account that in the separation process, power shifts. Are these new people actually moving into an independent adulthood, as did Stephanopoulos, or are they just jumping to another home that at this moment appears both warmer and more powerful? In other words, they're not coming of age -just looking for a new parental figure.

What I find more fascinating is that this movement away from the Clintons seems to be fueled somewhat by a silent, but seething, anger at them. I think that what this shows us is that in the previous interactions that were strong and supposedly based on political agreement, there were some hurt feelings, some resentment, some sense of being dissed or some sense of not being appreciated. Familiarity can indeed breed contempt.

People want to be around power and people want to be a part of the group that's in control. But something in that interaction infuriated people and/or made them feel frustrated, inconsequential or hypocritical. In other words, they were angry and couldn't wait for the right moment to bolt. When it served their purpose, they stayed in the home with everyone else, but they were biding their time, waiting for the day when they could walk away and not be walking away from the center of power. Obama's attraction is not only who is, but it is also that he is an alternative. He is the vehicle for leaving the old parents--and, clearly, a lot of Clinton people just couldn't wait to get on board. The Clintons may have been shocked and angered by what's happened, but there's nothing new about it. Years ago an even more powerful parent figure was stunned to see who had betrayed him. "Et tu. Brute?" he said. He lost.