11 May 2009

Republicans "need a hero"

Jonah Goldberg believes that personality often trumps principles in elections. Thinking that helps this Republican explain last year's presidential election, but he's willing to admit that the same rule worked in 2000, when his side won. This is from his latest column.

In my darker moods, I suspect that American politics, at least at the presidential level, is ultimately just a popularity contest. In the television age, the more personally charming guy wins — or at minimum has a monumental advantage.Partisans on both sides tend to not like this argument for all sorts of reasons. For instance, they tend to like their candidates better than the other team’s. Of course, this is often just a rationalization. If you honestly believed that Michael Dukakis was a more likable guy than George H.W. Bush, or that Nixon would be a more entertaining drinking buddy than JFK, you should seek therapy, or a vigorous regimen of enemas, or both. The simple fact is that if John Kerry and Al Gore weren’t pompous human toothaches, they would have blown George W. Bush out of the water.Also, partisans like to believe that whenever their guy wins, it’s because their ideas have been ratified by the American people, and whenever the other guy loses, they pronounce that the American people have resoundingly rejected this or that idea. Sometimes this is obviously true, but not nearly as often as we like to think.

As befits a conservative, Goldberg's idea is not a new one. Every since John F. Kennedy won the first televised presidential debates in 1960, it's been presumed that Abraham Lincoln would lose such a debate simply because he was so damned ugly. Goldberg embraces the argument now because he doesn't want the 2008 vote to be interpreted as a repudiation of Reaganism. This is where his analysis gets odd. At the least, it's strange that his column is headlined "we need a hero" in many places, since they had one last year and were beaten -- and not because people believed the attempted debunking of Seantor McCain's POW record. Here's Goldberg's thesis.

Liberals bristled at — but didn’t really deny — the suggestion that voters preferred Bush because they’d rather “have a beer with him.” What they fail to fully appreciate is that many voters preferred Obama because they’d rather have a chardonnay with him than with that cranky John McCain. Obama’s winning personality and a widespread yearning for ill-defined “change” were probably more essential to Obama’s victory than his campaign proposals.

This is debatable. I suspect that many Americans, including many who voted against him, might prefer sharing beer with McCain than hanging with the relative elitist Obama. I also question whether "cranky" was most Americans' first word to describe the often good-humored McCain, whatever fellow senators felt about the man. But Goldberg isn't far off the mark when he notes worryingly that his party lacks charismatic winning personalities. He's brazen enough to admit that his ideal candidate would be Dick Cheney, but honest enough to admit that Cheney wouldn't stand a chance in the current national mood. Too many Republicans replicate Cheney's image of a snarling, sneering (or, just as bad, contemptuously chortling) portly old man for Goldberg to like their immediate chances. The great exceptions are Governor Palin and Governor Jindal, but the Alaskan brings her own polarizing traits to the debit side of the ledger, while Jindal famously flopped in his first big chance, the reply to the presidential message.

Looming above them all, of course, is the appalling persona of Rush Limbaugh, who is perhaps paradoxically both the devil-image of the anti-Republican imagination and the nearest thing to a hero-image many Republicans now have. He's their ideal of "speaking truth to power," and as long as he remains their ideal icon, and someone to whom any other Republican must answer, I doubt whether any fresh face can reverse the current trend until the logic of the American Bipolarchy itself rescues the grand old party -- at which point, despite Goldberg, personalities won't matter.


d. eris said...

"voters preferred Bush because they’d rather “have a beer with him.”"

I always thought this was a rather strange sentiment (even more so because it was so widespread), since Bush's image was that of a born-again teetotaler.

Samuel Wilson said...

I guess we ought to question how many people actually bought that image. The supermarket tabloids had him falling off the wagon throughout his presidency. But "having a beer" was probably journalistic shorthand for his being regular folks -- an equally questionable image.

Anonymous said...

I don't suppose it has occurred to them that if they each, individually, lived up to the standards they seek to hold others to, they wouldn't need a hero at all?

Samuel Wilson said...

They'd still need a charismatic leader of some sort, which is what Goldberg really means. He'd personally prefer candidates who put [conservative] principle before personality, but he's convinced that people vote for likability these days, and he concedes implicitly that conservative principles aren't necessarily likable without a "heroic" personality to sugar-coat them for people.

Anonymous said...

Could be dangerous territory there...if "likeability" equates with "he ain't better 'n me." I would think we'd want our President to be better than us. I would like to think that we all expect our political leaders to be better people than us - better educated, better moral standards, better personality, etc. In other words, our political leadership should reflect the best and brightest among us. But it seems that, at least the conservative sector, would prefer a GW Bush or Bill Clinton who just seem to be a "common folk" persons.

Samuel Wilson said...

Likability seems to be relative based on who's running at any given time. Last year, for instance, Obama didn't project any "he aint better'n me" vibe, but Goldberg presumes that voters still found him more likable than the "cranky" McCain. As I wrote before, I don't buy that assessment, but it's fair to Goldberg to point out that he doesn't equate likability with anti-intellectualism.

Anonymous said...

Or it could be that he's partially right - people will vote for a likable guy, but if he screws up, they'll vote for the opposing party?