The best politicians appeal to both the head and the heart. Ronald Reagan had a clear ideological perspective and specific policy goals, but he also had good humor, optimism, and a largeness of spirit that was apparent to even the least partisan Americans. While Bill Clinton’s appeal was lost on conservatives, many less ideological ordinary Americans were transfixed by his yarns and policy wonks were delighted by his State of the Union policy compendia.
By contrast Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson may have only half the equation each, which accounts in large part why they have been unable to consolidate support among conservatives still looking for a standard bearer.
Romney has a PowerPoint presentation and a detailed policy proposal for most everything that ills the country. He has a tax free savings plan for middle income taxpayers, a market-based health plan that wisely eschews government mandates he favored in Massachusetts, a “paradigm” for dealing with Iran and a complete list of social policy positions he recently offered at the Family Research Council Values Votes Summit.
However, he is strangely missing the emotional component that allows voters to connect with him. He hardly raises an eyebrow nor does he respond substantively when John McCain accuses him of fooling voters. He offers no heartfelt apology to the military dad at the New Hampshire debate offended by the comparison to his son’s campaign work and military service. He neither hugs nor commiserates with the waitress in the Red Arrow diner describing her family’s economic and health problems. At big event speeches (e.g. the National Review Summit, the Mackinac GOP Conference) audiences have been left cold. His drubbing by Mike Huckabee in the onsite straw poll among FRC voters who actually saw the two indicates that he has a long way to go to close the sale with social conservatives. His much remarked unfavorable to favorable poll ratio is a sign he may have impressed voters but not earned their affection.
Thompson has the opposite dilemma. His grip on news items and regional policy issues has become a running gag among his opponents and he has yet to offer, with a few notable exceptions, policy proposals on a host of issues as Romney or Rudy Giuliani have done. His campaign slogan of Security, Unity and Prosperity is indicative of the generalized pabulum that characterizes many of his speeches. Instead, his appeal is visceral. He is selling his persona — stable, homespun, comforting and calm — in troubled times. There is something refreshing about a politician who won’t tell interest groups everything they want to hear. As a result, pundits, Washington insiders and interest group activists have been unmoved, but he polls better than the policy-laden Romney.
With only half the puzzle both Romney and Thompson have not yet put together a winning combination to unseat frontrunner Giuliani. In some sense Thompson has the easier task. As seen in the Florida debate, some work on policy and sharpening of rhetorical skills can go a long way toward enhancing his appeal. As he speaks in greater detail about entitlement reform there is a glimmer of promise that he might develop a conservative agenda that will reassure voters he is not only a reliable conservative but a knowledgeable and competent one too.
As for Romney many of called on him to give a speech about his Mormon faith. But a more immediate problem may be to find a way to communicate to voters what drives him, what experiences motivate him and what he feels, not just thinks. More importantly, his controlled reserve — an ideal quality for a business executive — may be inhibiting his ability to bond with voter. His inner life and personality remain a mystery. Now feigning emotions he does not feel would be an error, but revealing something about his character and displaying empathy with the voters and a little anger toward his opponents would go a long way toward convincing voters he is not simply the sum of his policy papers.
If either of these contenders can put it all together both intellectually and emotionally he may give Giuliani a run for his money. If not, neither is likely to catch him.