I have written lately quite a lot about a needed redirection in the GOP message and agenda, one that is more focused on problem-solving, more focused on the middle class and its standard of living and less exclusionary (regarding gays, immigrants, etc.) But so much of politics is about personality. In Ronald Reagan, the cheery conservative was the man for the moment in American politics. In 1992 it was Bill Clinton, a down-home Southern Democrat who felt our pain.
A common trait in many successful politicians, and especially for Republicans who are accused of looking out only for the rich, is that they can go anywhere in the country and relate to average people. Even Richard Nixon knew this. A friend mentioned the other day how effectively the Checkers speech (now mocked routinely) captured Nixon as the everyman, up against the rich and powerful:
Our family was one of modest circumstances and most of my early life was spent in a store out in East Whittier. It was a grocery store — one of those family enterprises. The only reason we were able to make it go was because my mother and dad had five boys and we all worked in the store.
I worked my way through college and to a great extent through law school. And then, in 1940, probably the best thing that ever happened to me happened, I married Pat — who is sitting over here. We had a rather difficult time after we were married, like so many of the young couples who may be listening to us. I practiced law; she continued to teach school. Then in 1942 I went into the service.
After detailing his very modest assets and what he owed he concluded: “Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this — that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
Whether it is modest economic means (Nixon), a tough family life growing up (Reagan) or just being comfortable in one’s own skin (George W. Bush), the best Republican pols have always found a way to connect with voters and to convince them that they were “fighting for people like you.” Nixon was going to protect the honest middle class from violence in the streets and cultural decay. Reagan was going to protect their pocketbooks and look out for their safety (from communism). The current that runs through all of these winning candidates is the ability to run against type, to be one of us (the voters).
It is not a matter of ethnic or racial identity, but of voters’ ability to identify with the candidate, a sense of social familiarity. Is this the sort of person they know, who gets what voters are all about? Part of it is forgoing the usual political patter, but it is also about relating to voters the way they relate to neighbors, friends, co-workers.
No matter how much Republican activists swoon over ideology and no matter how think tankers praise the latest tax reform plan or idea for Medicare reform, these are not the things that win elections. What ultimately carries the day is a candidates’ plain-spoken appeal and voters’ conviction that the pol will look out for them.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks about looking out for the taxpayer against union bosses. At the Conservative Political Action Conference gathering this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared, “There are millions of Americans, young and old, native and immigrant, black, white and brown, who simply seek to live free, free to practice their religion, free to choose where they send their kids to school, free to choose their own healthcare, free to keep the fruit of their own labor, free to live without government constantly being on their back. I will stand for them. I will stand for you.”
And in his widely praised February 2011 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Gov. Chris Christie told the audience about standing up to the Democrats’ demand for tax hikes:
And what I said to them was listen, if you guys want to pass an income tax increase, you can. That’s fine, I’m going to veto it. And if you want to close down the government because of that, that’s fine. But I want to tell you something – I’m not moving any cot into this office to sleep in here. If you close down the government I’m getting into those black SUVs with the troopers and going to the governor’s residence. I’m going to go upstairs, I’m going to open a beer, I’m going to order a pizza, I’m going to watch the Mets. And when you decide to reopen the government, give me a call and I’ll come back. But don’t think I’m sleeping on some cot. Take a look at me, you think I’m sleeping on a cot? Not happening.
That is a fundamentally conservative message but delivered brilliantly with directness. (He also sounds the anti-public employee union pitch that Walker uses so well: “I’m attacking the leadership of the union. Because they’re greedy and they’re selfish and self-interested. The members of that union are being ill-served by the leadership of that union. And so what I say, what I’m doing, is to save your pension, to save your healthcare for the rest of your life, and yeah, you’re going to have to take a little less. That’s the way it goes, we’re in difficult times and there were promises made that couldn’t be kept.”)
Do the Republicans have a cloth-coat conservative who can relate to voters? They’ve got a few of them. If you want to know which Republican is going to succeed, don’t look for the slickest tax reform plan or the most intricate Obamacare alternative. And certainly don’t look for the guy quoting the Federalist Papers to blank-stares from voters. It’ll be the guy who can walk into any bar, relate to any voter and show how he’s going to stand with and for him or her.