At the end of last week, after Republicans analyzed their election wins and losses, both The Anchoress and Peggy Noonan riffed a bit on a similar theme — strong candidates, more than anything else, are what wins elections. First up, The Anchoress:
… when [Christine O’Donnell] loses by 15 points — particularly against so unlikable an opponent as Senator-elect Chris Coons — the blame needs to be a bit more inwardly directed. On the stump, in debate, and even in her concession speech, Christine O’Donnell came off as a platitude-spouting lightweight, fine for a morning talk show (in fact, perhaps too smart for some of them) but not for the Senate.
… [G]ood candidates are not defeated by unfriendly media, because they transcend it. Reagan did it. George W. Bush, who had to contend with “snipers wanted” signs attached to his image before he even became his party’s nominee for president, did it. Good candidates may believe the press is their enemy, but they never betray that belief. Instead, they joshingly push them aside and talk to the voters directly.
The josh-and-push is an essential part of a successful campaign; it demonstrates a deftness of touch that denotes a true statesman. When one cannot handle the abuses of the press — or feels inclined to respond to their every aggression — the electorate gets a subconscious message: “you let your opponent get into your head; you fluster; you take small things too seriously and lose focus.” All of that translates into: “you are not a strong leader.”
And last Friday, Peggy Noonan chimed in:
What the tea party, by which I mean members and sympathizers, has to learn from 2010 is this: Not only the message is important but the messenger.
Even in a perfect political environment, those candidates who were conservative but seemed strange, or unprofessional, or not fully qualified, or like empty bags skittering along the street, did not fare well. The tea party provided the fire and passion of the election, and helped produce major wins–Marco Rubio by 19 points! But in the future the tea party is going to have to ask itself: Is this candidate electable? Will he pass muster with those who may not themselves be deeply political but who hold certain expectations as to the dignity and stature required of those who hold office?
This is the key question the tea party will face in 2012. And it will be hard to answer it, because the tea party doesn’t have leaders or conventions, so the answer will have to bubble up from a thousand groups, from 10,000 leaders.
Electable doesn’t mean not-conservative. Electable means mature, accomplished, stable–and able to persuade.
I agree with these assessments. When you are a Republican, and you know that you will be facing a full-frontal assault from an unfriendly press who will dig up every skeleton from your past and work as hard as it can to make you look stupid, you have to be able to counter their aggressiveness with a commanding personality and a calm, focused demeanor.
Quirky or largely unknown candidates rarely win elections. The only real exception to this has been Barack Obama. He won because virtually the entire news and entertainment media complex came to his aid and created a super-human messiah image for him, complete with a belief system for the masses based on fairness and hope. And on the campaign trail, Obama was very good at bringing the “hope and change” message to life. He truly was an empty suit, but the Emperor’s New Clothes that were fashioned for him were tailored so well that he appeared to be anything but an empty suit.
The failures and weaknesses of Obama as President probably mean that we will not see anything like this happening again in the near future. Peggy Noonan admitted as much when she concluded her piece thusly:
Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can’t just bully them, you can’t just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.
And this really is the difference between losing candidates like Christine O’Donnell and winning candidates like Marcio Rubio, or for that matter Bobby Jindal. Rubio and Jindal are both accomplished, articulate, and very passionate about what they believe. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the same way, particularly when it comes to clarity about what he intends to do. Like him or not, Christie is serious about reducing the size and cost of government in New Jersey and is very honest about how he is going to do it. Glenn Reynolds also had this to say about the concept of clarity this weekend:
With the election over, Republicans are arguing about whether they should address Democrats via compromise, or confrontation. Both have their places, but I have a different suggestion.
With the deficit and the debt ballooning, with the economy remaining in the tank, and with tough choices on the horizon, what Americans need more than anything is clarity about what those choices involve, about who is making them, and about who is avoiding them.
Sometimes clarity will mean confrontation.
Republicans need to live up to their promise of an Obamacare repeal. Democrats will then be forced to join them, or vote against repeal. That will produce clarity on who stands for what, in time for the next elections.
If it passes Congress, Obama will be forced to veto or acquiesce. That will produce clarity, too.
I think the lesson for Republicans is pretty straightforward: if they are clear on policy positions and unified during their legislative maneuvering, they will wield a great deal of power against a dejected Democratic party and a very politically weak President.
Now, admittedly some politicians have been cast under such a long and dark negative shadow by the political process and through biased news reporting that their cause is probably permanently lost, regardless of how focused and passionate they are. I’m thinking of Newt Gingrich here (who is simply insane if he runs for President) and perhaps Sarah Palin too, even though I like her very much.
But the combination of poise, commitment, and clarity seems to be a winning strategy for most conservatives during elections. And those characteristics can also help newly elected conservatives transition from from candidates into effective leaders once they are sworn into office. I hope we will see them demonstrated repeatedly during the coming year.