In the rush to exude certitude, pundits often forget how uncertain politics can be, especially when it comes to the public personas of top politicians.
In November, President Obama was on top of the world. Now the press corps smells blood in the water and is going after him over phony sequester claims, the absence of a balanced budget and his unwillingness to live up to his billing as the “most transparent” president ever. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was the darling of conservatives; now he’s not, but he could be again. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went from crank to folk hero in 13 hours.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) went from goofy wonk to the toast of the Gridiron in an evening. “Proving once against that there are second acts in politics,” Lynn Sweet observed, “Jindal was a big hit Saturday night at the 128th annual Gridiron Club and Foundation dinner, more than making up for his disastrous 2009 State of the Union speech. Which of course he used as fodder, since the best political humor is self-deprecating — and Jindal had an abundance of material.”
Certainly it is possible to lose the support of your party, and of the voters more generally, but the political prognosticators can make too much of isolated events, assigning huge significance to relatively transitory matters. They forget how short memories can be and how forgiving voters can be.
When pols help reenforce an already established pattern, a new event can cement a bad rap. But if the pol is relatively new to the national scene (for those other than political junkies), or an event is isolated within a larger context of a pol’s record, it’s hard to get yourself disqualified by a single speech, vote or proposal.
This is why, I would suggest, the smartest pols rack up a record of credibility with their base before taking a risk. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been the darling of the conservative movement since he came to the Senate, often casting votes that thrilled the rock-ribbed right-wing base (for example, voting against the fiscal cliff). That made it possible for him to draw on some political capital and at least get a hearing for his immigration plan with talk show hosts. They would (and did) listen more readily to him than to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been at loggerheads with his base for years.
And likewise, some in the conservative base are irate that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.) would include a revenue component in a historic transportation deal. But he’s spent three years cutting, reforming and governing as a conservative; he had some room to operate.
In short, skilled candidates possess more resiliency than pundits think. They can draw on their relationship of trust with voters. They can bounce back with humor. (Recall how then Gov. Bill Clinton kidded himself about his interminable Democratic Party convention speech in 1988.) They can create a breakthrough moment (“I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”). And of course Americans like a comeback story.
Over time, and only over time, can you see how a politician wears out, bounces back, navigates rocky times and builds on his successes. So those pols who the pundits have been crossing off the 2016 list? Put ’em back on. There is a lifetime in political terms between now and the pre-primary jostling. There is more than enough time for pols to go from goats to heroes and back again.