Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The GOP's Charisma Deficit

Last night Barack Obama gave a typical Democratic State Of The Union address in which he promised America the moon and stars. He told us he was going to cure cancer, pay for the college education of America’s children and halve the federal deficit. Amazingly, the only people who are going to have their taxes increased in order to pay for these things are the richest 2% of the population. Obama may as well have called for a permanent end to rain and crying babies.

Now, I know that Obama apologists are never going to second guess their hero, especially not this early into his first term, but for the rest of us, don’t you think it’s time for a little soul searching? The lesson Republicans should be learning as they are viewing the Obama love fest is that a lot of folks don’t care what’s being said as long as they like the guy who’s saying it and the style in which it’s being delivered.

Last night his supporters and much of the mainstream media continued to swoon, and didn’t bat an eye when the President had the audacity to tell them that the stimulus didn’t contain a single “earmark”. Apparently Obama has done to the term “earmark” what Bill Clinton attempted to do to the word “is”.

Of course after Obama’s speech the G.O.P followed him with Governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal is intelligent, young, has a story as unique and as interesting as Obama’s. His speech was a thoughtful, well laid out counter to the big government principles that Obama had spent the last hour talking about. Unfortunately, it was quickly evident, even to Republicans that the man who some Republicans were touting as “our party’s Obama” just a few hours ago, wasn’t even close. Jindal wasn’t just up against the pomp and fanfare of a Presidential address to a joint session of Congress, he was also up against the inevitable comparisons between his style of speaking to that of the president who was carried into office primarily because of his charisma and ability to connect with voters through rhetoric. There was no way Jindal was going to win that battle. Ten seconds into Jindal’s speech I turned to my father and said “This guy’s kind of a dork”.

Ten seconds after Jindal had finished; no one was talking about what the young Louisiana governor had said. Instead they were commenting on his strange, sing-songy delivery, his deer in headlights appearance and the fact that it was difficult to take him seriously after the rhetorical flourish and applause filled Obama stem-winder.

This leads us to an important question. Does the G.O.P have any chance of winning future elections, especially presidential ones, or even having people pay attention to our message over the next four years, without a charismatic, well-spoken individual out in front? I say no.

Since the Reagan years our presidential candidates have all had a certain type of charisma that appeals to a certain subset of Americans, but none of them possessed that natural charm or that aura of modern cool or the manipulation of easy to swallow talking points, that appeals to a broad spectrum of the American Idol viewing public.

George H.W. Bush was certainly a smart guy who knew just about everything there was to know about the inner workings of the federal government, but he was an exceptionally dull communicator. Robert Dole had a similar problem. He was qualified for the office of the presidency, but folks didn’t want to watch him on TV for the next four to eight years.

George W. Bush had certain type of straightforward Texas charm that was refreshing to a lot of folks after eight years of slick-Willy, however he was never able to effectively communicate on his feet and therefore couldn’t adequately defend his administration’s actions when defense was necessary. It also helped Bush immensely that he ran against two of the most obnoxious politicians of the age in Al Gore and John Kerry.

John McCain came across as being hot tempered and was clearly uncomfortable with talking points. He did not give off an aura of calm, especially when compared to his opponent.

What the party needs to do right now is to look at who we have waiting in the wings and make a certain amount of charisma and oratorical skill a prerequisite for our party’s nomination in 2012 and beyond. It doesn’t matter what wing of the party this individual comes from, be it the intellectual, country-club side (Mitt Romney) or the populist, social conservative side (Mike Huckabee), we have to come to terms with the fact that the last two times a Democratic president has been elected, they have had a huge advantage in the charisma column. Their nomination and subsequent election was made possible by the fact that most Democrats don’t care about experience. Their candidates agree on almost every major issue, so in the end the only difference between the candidates is their personal appeal to the Democratic primary voters.

G.O.P voters think a bit differently. There are several wings of the party and our voters have varied criteria on their checklist when choosing a presidential nominee. Unfortunately, in this environment we can’t trust the rest of the electorate to think as we do and vote for candidates because of their values, ideas, experience and vision. A Bobby Jindal simply won’t cut it anymore; despite the depth and salience of the message he’s delivering.

2012 will be a test for our party and depending on Barack Obama’s popularity it may be a test that we are destined to fail. However we must, as a party, begin to present likeable, well-spoken, cool, charismatic faces to the American public, who are ready for prime time. If this doesn’t not happen, young voters will never give us a chance and voters who are apolitical until they enter the voting booth will have no reason to pull the Republican lever.

I believe that Barack Obama is talented and intelligent, however I don’t buy into the description of him as “brilliant”. Some of his more enthusiastic supporters have begun describing him as such, but I am yet to see any real evidence that he is more than an incredibly well spoken guy who has thus far led a charmed existence in national politics. I don’t believe he’s any smarter than a Bobby Jindal, a Newt Gingrich, a Mark Sanford or a Tim Pawlenty. However if we fail to find a personality as intriguing and pleasing to the ear as Obama is, no amount of policy genius or time in office will make a lick of difference.

If Republicans want to win elections we should not, as some suggest, become more like the Democrats in terms of our policies. Instead we should emulate their recent ability to pick candidates with enough charm to make an otherwise uninterested electorate take notice and start really paying attention to what we have to say.

-Dan Joseph

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Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The sad reality is that a large percentage of American's don't pay close enough attention to the "content" of the message. They are largely swayed on style and charisma. This group of people is large enough to swing close elections.

Anonymous said...

Google "Eric Cantor"

Anonymous said...

You make a good point. Much of the presidential voting in this country is what I like to call "glandular." It comes from somewhere in the gut rather than from an intellectual analysis of the personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and their messages. However, the good news is that we don't vote for people in the abstract. Everyone runs against someone else. Who knows? In 2016 (the likely next time it will make a difference) the Democrats could nominate someone who looks and sounds like Barbara Mikulski simply because the ideologues will be in control of their party. In that circumstance, a Bobby Jindal might look like a combination of Cary Grant and Antonio Banderas to the average voter!

Anonymous said...

The American public, as a whole, has turned the office of the President of the United States into The Spokesmodel of the United States. In the eyes of many Americans that's really all he should be. It is so unfortunate that this very narrow and shallow vision of what a world leader should be drives our elections. A candidate's value as "spokesmodel" for the country should, if anything, be just a small part of how we view them. The president certainly should be a good communicator but values, strengths, character, and track record should be the primary criterion for choosing him or her.

Midnight Oil said...

It's so sad, but true. It's as though Republicans are trying to be boring.

In this superficial, Obama-loving, media-saturated world, it's highly evident that what resonates with the public is not policy, but rhetoric...and also the "what can you do for me?" mentality.

As wrong as that approach may be, it's what we have to work with. There HAS to be someone out there who can bring the conservative ideals to life, again. Where is today's Reagan?