The GOP can’t win in 2016 by thinking inside the box.
The usual criteria for political success — plenty of New York and Washington IOUs, youthful vigor, good looks, glibness, access to lots of money — aren’t sufficient any longer to galvanize the Republican party or get out the conservative vote. Instead, the next Republican nominee should meet four criteria that are rarely mentioned.
Being liked by the media is no plus. In the 2008 primaries the media preferred John McCain as a reasonable moderate, at least compared with the primary alternatives, and in 2012 they preferred Mitt Romney. Once the primaries were over, both candidates reverted to their prior demonic status among journalists.
So why not nominate a Republican who never addresses a celebrity journalist as “Candy,” or “Katie,” or “Brian,” or “George,” but instead politely says Mr. this or Ms. that, avoiding any suggestion of either intimacy or paranoid dislike. Distanced formality is the key with the media.
The candidates’ own desire to appear accommodating to the press has led mostly to media contempt. For a while in 2008 we were treated to wild charges that John McCain had had an affair; debate moderator Candy Crowley interrupted the give-and-take to join sides with Barack Obama. Romney’s sins were supposedly impolite behavior as a high-schooler and putting a pet in a cage on his car roof. He also did not say hello often enough to his trash collector. The next nominee should not just expect to be disliked by the New York/Washington-nexus press, but must learn to welcome that disdain as honorific rather than cower before it. Here the key would be to question the premise and motive of typical gotcha questions rather than to give the sort of logical answers that will be selectively edited to appear pejorative. By and large, journalists are more bullies than geniuses. They tend to be toadyish, not principled and courageous. Playing by their rules and seeking their approval are suicidal for any conservative candidate.
Being combative — and liking it — is critical. One can be combative without being obnoxious. Any Republican who seriously wishes to balance the budget, close the border and end illegal immigration, reform the tax code, address government unions, revisit entitlements, and restore muscularity abroad must be prepared to be hated. Millions of Americans are invested in the present tax-and-spend government, in big deficits and huge debt, in open borders, and in paying no federal income taxes. They will not quietly concede such advantages, but will smear and slander any who seek to reform the system and, by extension, the unsustainable policies that nonetheless are popular with millions. The preferred candidate will have to put up with shouting union protesters, be amused by op-eds alleging callous cruelty, and expect violent disruptions when he speaks — as proof of his steady success. Wanting to be liked is a prescription for disaster. Every time an accommodating Republican candidate tries to reach out, his generosity is seen as weakness to be taken advantage of, not magnanimity to be reciprocated.
EXPERIENCE RUNNING THINGS
It is an old canard that governors make better presidents than senators. Instances of former governors who were successful as presidents and others who were utter failures are both easy to adduce. Still, there is something to be said for having managed something — something other than a government staff or bureau — and for not being either a lawyer or a senator. Neither of those latter jobs offers much experience in balancing a budget, hiring good people and firing bad, making a profit, and building things, as opposed to critiquing or nuancing them. So, this time around, we might look for three additional diverse criteria in a candidate: no Ivy League degree, no tenure as a U.S. senator, and no law degree. Ivy League lawyers and Washington insiders like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry know little about foreign policy, less about the economy — and nothing about the law.
A MAN OR WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE
In 2008 the elitist Barack Obama turned John McCain into an old fuddy-duddy who could not remember how many houses his billionaire wife had purchased — unfair but effective. In 2012 we heard ad nauseam not about Obama’s elite tastes, his pompous golfing, or his obsession with entertainers, professional jocks, and other celebrities, but only about Mitt Romney’s cars, his elevators, and his wife’s purebred mounts. Of course, that was demagoguery, given that the backbone of the present Left is blue 1-percenter counties and billionaire megadonors. Nonetheless, nominating someone who did not marry into a fortune or make hundreds of millions on Wall Street might offer a pleasant change. Let Hillary suffer the wages of political dynasty, cashing in, and a multimillion-dollar Clinton stock portfolio. Even scenes of George W. Bush in 2004 cutting brush on his ranch trumped John Kerry windsurfing in spandex. Cannot the Republicans — who now represent the middle classes much more than the 1 percent — find a candidate from modest circumstances who cannot be smeared as a product of privilege when he demands collective sacrifice, balanced budgets, and entitlement reform? To beat Hillary, one must be the un-Hillary.
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Where do these quirky requirements leave us? Right now, with someone more like Scott Walker than Jeb Bush. And I’ll leave it at that until we see more action in the arena in the months ahead.