On Sunday former President Bill Clinton was out in Virginia campaigning for his once-fundraiser and now gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. It was a trip down memory lane for some who saw these two at the peak of their influence in the 1990s when the Third Wave, that is Democratic centrism, was all the rage.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

It was also a reminder that there are few pols in either party with Bill Clinton’s skills. For Republicans it is a reminder that being likable counts and that finding ways in which voters can relate to you and you to them are usually more important than the specifics of your tax plan or your views on energy. While McAuliffe is nowhere near as adept as Clinton, he’s almost certainly good enough to win the gubernatorial race a week from tomorrow. It was McAuliffe’s good fortune to run against the state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli ll.

Cuccinelli’s views and positions on most issues are very close to those of incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won the state by almost 20  percent.

So what did he have that Cuccinelli did not? Artur Davis, one-time Democratic congressman from Alabama and now one of the more insightful Republicans, told me that in some sense the problem is what Cuccinelli hasn’t done. At a time when right-wingers are out in force, showing antipathy toward government itself and little concern for the poor, verging on smallness or mean-spiritedness, Davis argues that “the burden is on a Republican to distance himself from that…Cuccinelli hasn’t done that in his race.” He makes a convincing case that “this notion that voters will tolerate views and priorities they don’t share as long as ‘they know where you stand’ is a fantasy. No thoughtful voter wants to empower a philosophy that he or she doesn’t think is responsible.” Acknowledging McDonnell’s recent problems, Davis nevertheless argues that McDonnell has much to teach Republicans.

“The one thing I have heard over and over about Virginia politics is that voters elect pragmatists who put growing the state first: that is Bill Wilder, George Allen in ’93,  Mark Warner, and Bob McDonnell, ” Davis explained. “McDonnell has made errors and has been damaged by them, but his term has been such a model of smart, thoughtful governance.” His advice to his new party is simple: “We as a party will need to get back to that style in the future.”

Davis is on the money with regard to Virginia and the country at large. One reason the shutdown and its leaders  took such a beating is that Americans are at their wits’ end with the incompetence and dysfunction of government. It would be a mistake for the GOP to see the outrage against Obamacare too narrowly or too broadly.

It is not merely irritation over a Web site or dislike of a massive, ill-conceived statute. But is not a repudiation of all government. There are few Americans who want to uproot government entirely, and the angry tone and willingness to halt governance altogether is unsettling, even for traditional Republicans.

The challenge, which Cuccinelli did not rise to combat, is three-fold. First, voters appreciate calm, cool and collected leaders. It is little wonder the media fawned over (and in retrospect, invented) Obama’s “superior temperament” in 2008. Voters may be angry, but they’d like leaders to be level-headed. Second, there is a reason Obama ran as a blank slate in 2008 and on no particular agenda in 2012; Americans are wary of ideological overreach and extremists.

Sorry, tea party, but the most popular and successful conservatives are those who present their conservative ideas without all the appeals to abstract ideology. (It’s like reminding people how religious you are.) Reagan sold tax cuts not because they were conservative but because they worked to stoke the economic engine. Pols can save the tributes to Hayek for a symposium. And finally, the “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” question is more important than many conservatives think. Voters want someone who isn’t going to scold them or the country and who displays good cheer and good humor.

Cuccinelli to one degree or another failed on all these points, and the GOP as a whole risks doing so too. It is not simply a matter of putting on a forced smile. If conservatives want to win, they have to show they like their friends and even their adversaries. They have to be relatable. And they have to be the people who will fix the mess  instead of using elected office to pull off an ideological crusade. Is that so hard? For many in the GOP it is.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.