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Should Republicans start acting like Obama?

Posted: January 9, 2013 at 6:15 am   /   by

Marc Thiessen asks a salient question in Monday’s Washington Post:

I wish more Republicans were like Barack Obama.

Really. Give the president his due: he fights for what he believes in.

In his first year in office, Obama faced a popular backlash against his stimulus spending bill and saw a Republican elected to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in a referendum on Obamacare. Yet despite these and other setbacks, the president declared he had no intention of moderating his approach. “The one thing I’m really clear about is that I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” Obama said in a January 2010 interview.

That attitude is precisely why Obama is a now two-term president.

Instead of backing down in the face of a rising tea party movement, Obama doubled down. He knew full well that that the majority of Americans disagreed with Obamacare, but he believed it was the right thing to do. So he rammed it through Congress, passing it over the near-unanimous opposition of the Republican Party and the objections of the American people.

Voters rebuked him in the 2010 midterm elections, putting the House in Republican hands. But by 2012, Americans gave Obama a second term in office. Now, Obamacare is the permanent law of the land — and Ted Kennedy’s seat is back in Democratic hands.

Obama fought for what he believed in, never backed down, absorbed the political blowback — and won.

Why can’t Republicans do that?

The reasons are probably many, but I will herein offer four.

1) Statesmen, charismatic leaders, and brilliantly convincing advocates for ideologies aren’t as common as we might think.

In Are we reading too much into this election?, I wrote the following

Elections may be much more about personality than we realize. 

Take a look at the following list of characteristics:

  • Dynamic
  • Charismatic
  • Powerful
  • Likable
  • Manly

Now, take a look at the following list of presidential match-ups:

  • Reagan-Carter
  • Reagan-Mondale
  • Bush-Dukakis
  • Clinton-Bush
  • Clinton-Dole
  • Bush-Gore
  • Bush-Kerry
  • Obama-McCain
  • Obama-Romney

Notice something? The winner in every case was the candidate who had more of the characteristics listed above, or had some of them in noticeably greater measure. A few of these races were closer calls on this front than others, but looking objectively, there simply seems to be more charisma on the winning side in each case.

[ . . . ]

A presidential historian could go back and look at the rest of the races in U.S. history to see how often this pattern proves true. For these last nine presidential match-ups, however, the pattern appears unmistakable. At the end of the day—whatever else is going on in the nation and whatever the relative merits of various policy positions held by the candidates—the electorate seems to go for the more dynamic, charismatic, or likable choice. Every time.

Could it be that simple? Is the act of choosing a president a far more visceral one than we might care to admit? If so, then all the soul-searching that the GOP is doing may be looking in the wrong direction. The real key, in such a scenario, is to close the primary system to help avoid choosing the pale pastels, un-dynamic nice-guy compromise choices (Dole, McCain, et al) and to nominate a candidate who will appeal to the electorate on a far more visceral, basic level.

The effectiveness to which Theissen is referring, which he is lamenting isn’t as present on the GOP side, may be more about personality than we care to admit. Personally, I find Barack Obama to be anti-charisma; I imagine flowers wilting as he approaches. But an honest appraisal requires me to admit that the country does not agree. To many, he seems hip, real, charismatic, convincing, and forceful. That probably accounts for a great deal of Obama’s success. And the chances are good that if the GOP had had a Ronald Reagan in the 2012 race, the results would have been very, very different.


2) The right is usually reacting, the left is usually acting

The notion that radicals act and conservatives react ought not be particularly controversial. This is the nature of things. At some point, a libertarian/conservative/classical-liberal ideological movement might become highly activist and radical, but that hasn’t happened yet. We see glimmers in the tea party and Ron Paul movements, but just glimmers. The tea party especially is still largely a RE-action to radical encroachments on individual liberties rather than a pro-active attempt to assert an ideological platform.

The left, on the other hand, is in permanent activism mode, and has been since the French Revolution. They have a project they are trying to see through to completion. That tends to make them highly motivated. By contrast, the right is usually in reaction mode, “standing athwart history and yelling ‘stop’!” Reaction is not a program. It’s not a plan. It’s not a mission. It’s just reaction. This means that the right is less focused. Until the denizens of the right, and their primary political representatives, decide to assert an agenda proactively, they will be rather perennially outgunned. Which leads me to . . .


3) Republicans need to get back to first principles

Some will see my previous assertion as unfair. The Republicans, they’ll say, are proactive—they support gun rights and low taxes and a whole host of other issues. But that word—”ISSUES”—encapsulates the problem. The Republican Party—and unfortunately, by extension, some conservatives—appears to be correct on a checklist of issues, but they largely appear to lack a clear indication of the core ideological justification for WHY they take the position they do on issues. It’s just a checklist.

The left is clear and loud about what they want: “FAIRNESS.” What they really want, of course, is equality of outcomes. This is an impossibility for a free society and a near-impossibility for any other society as well, but it doesn’t matter, because they couch this aim with the concept of fairness, which has a visceral appeal.

The core ideological underpinning of the right is FREEDOM. Individual rights, limited government encroachment on personal sovereignty, and equality of opportunity. The right’s core belief has a visceral appeal as well, and what’s more, it IS workable in a free society. It is workable and brings about more success than anything else. But you don’t hear many Republicans talking about it in terms that will truly inspire. Once they do that, they will start winning again.


4) The world turned upside down

To some degree, it’s hard to fault the GOP. The tide of public opinion tends to overwhelm everything in its path, and after 100 years of statism, decades of increasing dependency, and the left’s long march through the institutions, it is not surprising that the electorate has . . . shall we say . . . changed. The ground has shifted underneath the GOP’s feet, and they have to figure out how to recover. It isn’t going to be easy, but they cannot entirely be faulted, either.

Shortly after the election, I wrote the foregoing to some colleagues in the course of a discussion in which we were all asking the question on so many’s lips, minds, and hearts—What just happened?

(With minor edits . . . )

Don’t be too hard on the GOP. They’re just like you and me—–gobsmacked by a world in which taxpayer-funded birth control can actually be turned into a fundamental civil right in a matter of just a few months . . . by a media that will literally do and say anything, with no regard to quaint notions such as truth, integrity, or even the slightest bit of journalistic curiosity . . . . by a movement that creates a class of takers, terrifies them into believing that the makers are out to get them, and teaches them to resent the people who are providing for their very sustenance.

What happened is not solely the result of some failure on the part of the GOP; it’s much bigger than that. The GOP is largely made up of decent people trying to make the argument that we need to behave like grownups to a nation in which a huge swath of the electorate have become totally infantilized. They are trying to explain difficult concepts to people about how the world actually works, while the left is shouting “free stuff” and “old white men are trying to control your body” at the top of their lungs. The GOP is doing the difficult work of trying to tell the truth in the face of a movement that lies with the same ease that you and I breathe. The GOP is not some separate thing from us: it is made of conservative people, and we conservatives are less willing to lie and cheat and steal than the left. The GOP’s problem is our problem, and it’s big.

Yes, they can do better, but this is a systemic issue. Imagine, for example, being a sane Frenchman during the Reign of Terror. Sure, you could have pointed to one faction or another and wished that they could have done a better job, but who could have stopped it, really? The nation had gone mad. We’re not quite as bad here, but we’ve gone pretty mad in our own way. The GOP has work to do, but it’s not their fault that the world has turned upside down.

To expand on the point even further—–it’s the job of political parties to win elections. Not to try to take over the media or rescue academia from the clutches of the left or any of the other fights that need to be fought against the institutional left. But those are where the real problem lies. The GOP can be as strong as it wants, but if the country has been moved massively to the left as a consequence of the control exercised by the institutional left over every other area of our civilization, then they just won’t win.

I conclude by making a point that I believe we all should take to heart:

Dealing with the broader problem of the institutional left—-well, that’s our job.

Yes, the GOP needs to do better in several areas. But the problem is much bigger than that, and we cannot expect the GOP to solve it. In fact, expecting them to do so is essentially expecting the government to fix our problems, and that ) is not a very conservative/libertarian notion and B) ain’t gonna happen anyway.

No, whatever the GOP’s challenges are, we the people have our own challenges, and they’re much bigger. And if we want the GOP to fix itself, maybe we ought to be doing more out here in the civil society to fight the good fight.