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The Talent Contest

What makes a political winner? Ideology and party platforms are overrated.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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The GOP may have a problem, but few seem to know what it is. Such appeal as the party had, it seems to have lost. In the later-stage Cold War, between 1968 and 1989, it won five out of six presidential elections, four of them with more than 400 votes in the Electoral College. Since the Cold War ended, the party has won two elections and lost four, lost the popular vote in five of these contests, and never took more than 286 votes in the Electoral College—while the Democrats four times have won more than 300 votes in the Electoral College. 

Carter and Reagan

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One can look at this history and see two liberals, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (of different stripes, but still liberals), pounding on or hemming in the conservatives, and decide that ideology must be the trouble. Or one can look through an alternative prism and see something different: two extravagantly gifted liberal candidates, who each ran two times against four poor politicians, bracketing one good but slightly less gifted conservative, who also ran twice against poor politicians, making the issue less one of theory and more one of candidate skills. 

This isn’t to say that party and platform don’t matter. They do, as do a number of other disparate factors, among which are timing and luck. But since 1980, winners have come from the left, right, and center; been rich and poor, young and old, black and white; been fatherless waifs or children of power; and through it all, there has been only one constant: Each time, the prize has gone to the better political animal. Let us go back and examine each contest to see how this pattern played out.

 

 Early in 1980, Democrats believed they had found their dream candidate, or rather, the candidate they’d dreamed of running against. This was a 69-year-old, over-the-hill former actor who had worked with a chimp in one of his movies, was far to the right and a Goldwater backer, had lost two prior runs for the GOP nomination, and had been known to say some odd things. This partly described Ronald Reagan, but there was more. He was also a two-term governor of one of the biggest states in the union, and had been a political animal all of his life: a class president, head of the Screen Actors Guild in California, head negotiator for that union in battles with management; a campaigner and spokesman for Roosevelt and Truman, and later spokesman for General Electric on national issues when his screen career ended. Endorsing Goldwater in 1964—in a speech that was more widely praised than any the candidate himself uttered—he shunned the Goldwater bluntness for the more soothing style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was his model of leadership for all of his life. Though he left the party of Roosevelt, “he refused to abandon the words and phrases which provided a shared language and a common bond with his fellow citizens,” as his biographer Lou Cannon put it. This greatly helped him attract Reagan Democrats and, from his first race for governor, stymied the many attempts of his rivals to define him as a menace or “mean.”

“Reagan almost always refuses to be threatening or to let his opponent make him look threatening,” an aide for Pat Brown is quoted as saying in Michael Barone’s Our Country. “He doesn’t attack head-on very often. He . . . makes wisecracks, or pokes fun.” Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter, who had his incompetence going against him, managed to make his own “meanness” an issue, and to cite his 13-year-old daughter as an expert on the nuclear arms race in the one debate of the season, while Reagan, using the FDR tactic of framing huge themes in commonplace language, probably won the election by asking voters if they felt better off than they had four years before. Four years later, people were better off than under Carter, and Reagan made short work of Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, a stolid, mundane, and conventional liberal who clung to FDR’s remedies years after they ceased to be relevant, while Reagan dazzled with FDR’s savvy and skills.

But if Reagan was a political talent second to one in his century, his vice president, the elder George Bush, was the perfect example of the good public servant who loves to hold office but basically hates to campaign. An Eastern aristocrat whose transfer to Texas had not made him folksy, he struggled to connect with the average voter. He performed well in the high-ranking posts that he held by appointment—CIA head, RNC head, ambassador to China—but had won only two races for office (for a House seat from Houston) before losing a Senate race to Lloyd Bentsen and then the nomination in 1980 to Reagan himself. His bad luck was that he wasn’t a very good politician.

His good luck was that he had a skilled team that made him pretend to like pork rinds, and that his opponent was Michael Dukakis, a man whose common touch was even less obvious, and who had the misfortune to ride in a tank; to preside over the furlough of a murderer who proceeded to assault a young couple; and to exhibit indifference, in a TV debate watched by tens of millions, to the hypothetical murder and rape of his wife. This was enough to elect Bush, but not enough to let Bush prevail over William J. Clinton, a political prodigy who became governor of Arkansas before he was 30 and had planned to be president since, as a teenager, he had shaken John Kennedy’s hand. Added to this were the facts that Bush was elected president when he was 67, was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in his third year in office, and, after successfully overseeing the end of the Cold War and ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in a brilliantly engineered action, seemed to have run out of things that he wanted to do. 

A generation younger, Bill Clinton could think of hundreds of things, and was one of the most gifted of all politicians, blending the empathy skills of the eager glad-hander with the policy chops of the nerd. “He was capable of constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking,” one of his associates told Sally Bedell Smith for her book on the Clintons, adding that “he could recognize, quantify, and calibrate a response to the emotional state of the person with him” and of every new person he met on the trail. These were not the traits of the people who ran against him, and once he centered himself after the ’94 midterms, he made short work of Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, who belonged to the same generation as George Bush the elder and was still more laconic. What Dole proved was that “senator’s senators”—men who, like himself and Edward M. Kennedy, know, love, and are attuned to the slow pace and rules of the Senate—tend to make less than good national candidates, as they seem to have the wrong skill sets and message to run on the national scene. As it was, the man whom Joe Klein would describe as “The Natural” faced two opponents who were not in his league when it came to campaigning. And the spotlight moved on to his heir. 

In 1952, when Prescott Bush and Albert Gore Sr. entered the Senate together, they had no way of knowing that their kin (along with that of their classmate, John Kennedy) would help to define much of the coming half-century, or that their grandson and son would fight for the White House against each other almost 50 years on. The difference was that Albert Gore Jr., who was not a born politician, was pushed into the role by his iron-willed father, while George W. Bush, who had better political skills than his father, jumped into the fray on his own. As a result, by 2000, the younger Bush, elected governor twice, had developed his own set of issues and style, while Gore, who had only won seats once held by his father before becoming Clinton’s running mate, faced the first election he had to win wholly on his own at a time when he was still striving to find his own voice. Seeking a role that might fit, he hired a guru to dress him in earth tones, and may have lost the election at the debates, when he sighed in disgust and groaned audibly in the first; seemed almost comatose in the second encounter; and in the third, attempting to regain the offensive, left his chair, stalked over to Bush and loomed awkwardly, while Bush nodded at him, and the audience laughed. 

John Kerry never tried such theatrics, but he too was an awkward and unloved politician, who, like Mitt Romney, injured his case with his maladroit statements, and did nothing to tone down his ultra-luxe style, which ran to numerous houses and mansions, ski chalets whose stones were imported from England, and yachts.

In 2008, two controversial yet much lauded icons made their long-planned bids for national power, one being the war hero John McCain, who had been tortured by the Vietnamese for several years in the late 1960s, and the other the feminist heroine Hillary Clinton, who had been tortured perhaps even longer by Bill Clinton’s betrayals (which made her fans love her the more). Both had been planning their runs since 2000, when Hillary was elected to the Senate from New York and McCain had been narrowly (and bitterly) beaten for the nomination by Bush. 

They had become friends, and were looking forward to running against each other, when they were blindsided by the hurricane known as Obama, who ran less as a pol than a homegrown messiah, a fashion statement, a brand name, a mystical symbol of transracial healing, and a secular prophet at once. Known as “The One” and the “black Jesus,” he was a force they were wholly unable to cope with, who promised to quiet the rise of the oceans at the same time his canny machine operation was using the caucuses to undermine Clinton. His dual appeal as a wine-track academic and the first nonwhite major contender let him steal Clinton’s constituents from under her nose. He was good, and when even that seemed to flag, he was lucky: When he briefly lost traction in early September, the fiscal collapse sandbagged the Republican party and tipped the election into his lap. 

Four years later, his luck would get even better, when out of a dismal field of Republican challengers he drew as a rival not only one who was a subpar politician, but one who was no politician at all. Like Al Gore, Mitt Romney was a political son trying to force himself into a career groove for which he had no innate talent; like Gore, he had authenticity problems; like Kerry, he made no attempt to tone down his lifestyle, which included the $12 million house at the beach, the car elevator, and Rafalca, the wonder horse; like Kerry, who “voted for the bill before he voted against it,” he impaled himself on his own verbiage, with phrases such as “self-deportation” and the “47 percent.” With opponents like these, you may not need allies, and Obama cruised to his second-term win. 

As we are told, liberals and conservatives both live in bubbles, in which their networks, their blogs, and their print publications shut out the fresh air of dissent and contention. But there’s another bubble that both groups live in, where ideology counts for too much. They obsess over epic battles—big vs. small government, Keynes vs. Hayek, the state vs. markets—and assume that most people think likewise, and that every win they rack up means a total commitment, and that the public has thrown in on their side. But the people think differently. They care for results, not for theories; they never heard about Keynes and/or Hayek; they don’t care about theories of large or small government; they simply want something that works. If theory X works, they will be grateful and reward its proponent. If not, they will drop him and back theory Y. If theory Y works, they will stick with that for a while; if not, they will move on to the next name on Angie’s List, and keep going as long as it takes.

This divergence in outlook—religious conversion vs. Angie’s List shopping—explains the sharp, sudden swings such as 1992-1994, 2004-2006, and 2008-2010, when voters blew up what ideologues had mistaken for realignments, on grounds of malpractice or worse. Ideologies didn’t lose the voters’ confidence, presidents lost it. Ideologies don’t win elections, candidates do. This is why these internecine Republican battles—moderates vs. conservatives, the establishment vs. the Tea Party—are both one-dimensional and counterproductive, ignoring such elements as temperament, intellect, balance, and humor, which do not fall out upon ideological lines. Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Tim Scott, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are all Tea Party people and could not be more different. Barry Goldwater was a movement conservative who lost millions of votes from within his own party; Ronald Reagan was a movement conservative who lured millions of Democrats across party lines. Republicans need fewer autopsies and panels of pundits and poohbahs, and more entrepreneurship by their new class of political comers, who will rebrand, redefine, and rebuild their party, by their own exertions, themselves. 

Political talent is both the best thing to have and the hardest to come by, as it can only be groomed, and not made. If will, money, grit, and a high level of linear intelligence were sufficient to get it, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton would have been president, since if one could learn how to have talent, they would have learned it; and if one could pay money for it, it would have been bought. They thought ahead, planned, schemed for eight years, talked themselves hoarse and worked themselves silly, gave Obama a run for his money—and lost. They had the words, and none of the music, so they lost to a man who had all the music, and was better with words than with deeds. Candidates matter. They become the party; they give it their face, and they give its ideology their tone and their cadence and voice. If you want to win a political contest, it helps to have a good politician. Which is easier wished for than done.

 

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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