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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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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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