A Tail of Two Politicians

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


“If you want a friend in Washington,” Harry Truman once famously said, “get a dog.”

That doesn’t always work out in politics. Ask Mitt Romney. But when it does it, it can do more for a politician than a lapel full of flag pins. Ask California Governor Jerry Brown; he proved that can work in Sacramento, too. Brown not only cruised to re-election last year, without much heavy lifting—or spending; he’s now enjoying dazzling approval ratings.

Romney, who twice failed in his quest for the Presidency, opted out of the 2016 race after a “Don’t you want me back?” flirtation with the GOP failed to make most of the party faithful swoon.

“Dogpower” has played a role in the political fortunes of both politicians. Sutter Brown, California’s First Dog, has humanized the one-time cool and aloof Governor, while stories about the late Romney pet, Seamus, went viral during the 2012 Presidential campaign, emphasizing Mitt Romney’s “otherness”—his difficulty in relating to the average voter.

New York Times Columnist Gail Collins managed, in almost every column about Romney’s candidacy, to reference the story of how the Romneys took off on a family vacation with their dog strapped to the roof of their car. At the time, the founder of “Dogs against Romney” told the Washington Post, the story “… really says this guy is not like us and is mean.”

The Seamus story literally “dogged” Romney throughout the 2012 campaign; and, according to Politico, Mitt’s irritation with “[t]he return of jokes and columns about Romney putting his dog Seamus on the roof of a car during a decades-ago family vacation,” informed his decision not to run in 2016

Along with Ann Gust Brown, Sutter has been a key player in shaping the Governor’s image and political fortunes. Sutter’s Twitter and Facebook accounts have been big hits and the Golden State’s canine-in-chief has appeared in news conferences around the state. Sutter was a popular surrogate in the Governor’s successful campaign to persuade voters to enact Proposition 30’s tax increases.

The canine influence in politics is nothing new. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt blunted GOP criticism with his beloved “little dog Fala” and Richard Nixon used the family’s cocker spaniel, Checkers, to defuse a major scandal when he was running for vice President. Barbara Bush’s dog, Millie, became a bestselling author and Bill Clinton’s dog, Buddy, seemed like the beleaguered President’s only friend during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

What governor Brown has learned is that a dog can be a politician’s best friend. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, discovered that a dog can bite you in the political “butt” if you aren’t careful.

In the run-up to what portends to be—in California and nationally-a bruising, junk-yard election campaign, potential contenders should take a lesson from history.

Maybe, this time around, candidates might be better off skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and focusing their efforts on the Westminster Dog Show.

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