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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


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.

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