Several of my conservative friends were shocked last year by my assertion that Mitt Romney was the best choice for the Republican presidential nomination. My argument, however, had the virtue of simplicity: Romney is a tall, handsome, multimillionaire with a glorious mane of dark hair.
Considering that his leading rivals for the nomination at that time — John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson — were all in various stages of advanced baldness, the former Massachusetts governor’s thick hair constituted his chief qualification. Also, his chiseled jaw and his Hollywood-perfect smile. Fred might be a movie star, but Mitt looked like a movie star.
“But … Mitt’s a flip-flopper!” howled my friends.
“Yes, a very telegenic flip-flopper,” I replied. “Give me a good-looking flip-flopper over a bald old maverick any day of the week.”
This is not an endorsement of unprincipled flip-flopping, just an argument for assessing candidates the way independent “swing” voters assess candidates.
Let’s face it: Nominating a superficially attractive, rhetorically vague and ideological nebulous candidate didn’t hurt the Democrats this year, did it?
Swing voters are notoriously superficial. They believe they can judge a man’s fitness for office by watching him talk on TV. This fact frustrates politicians who don’t look good talking on TV, but it’s true.
The president is a television character, and the voters are casting agents. The American people went to the polls on Nov. 4 and cast Will Smith/Lawrence Fishburne in the role. Who can blame them, since the Republican Party sent Don Rickles/Tim Conway to the audition?
Trivia time: What was John McCain’s best demographic? White voters 65 and older, who went 58 percent for their fellow AARP member. Whatever else he did wrong, he didn’t lose the geezer vote. Losing Florida by 200,000 votes was bad, but just imagine how much worse it would have been had it not been for McCain’s advantage among the elderly.
Exit-poll data is insufficiently detailed to allow a completely superficial analysis of the electorate, but the fact that old candidates do best with old voters and black candidates do best with black voters (95 percent went for Obama) suggests that the GOP scored well this year among the short, the bald and the grumpy.
EXCUSE MY JOCULARITY about all this, but I’m in a silly mood, having just read David Brooks’s declaration in the New York Times that John McCain’s defeat has inaugurated a “fight over the future of conservatism” between Traditionalists and Reformers.
Our own R. Emmett Tyrrell was quoted as an emblematic Traditionalist, while several fashionable young authors were classified as Reformers by Brooks, who insists this Republican defeat can be blamed on conservatives who “continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West Coasts.”
So if I’m in a mood for mockery, don’t blame me, blame Their Mister Brooks. And don’t blame him, really, since he’s merely trying to justify his salary.
The self-interest of intellectuals demands that they portray every election as fraught with existential significance, an honest-to-goodness Hegelian shift in the zeitgeist. Divining the zeitgeist and integrating the latest paradigm shift into our weltanschauung is the stock-in-trade of intellectuals, and if all that elevated cogitation could produce an extra 207,000 Republican votes in Ohio, maybe I would give a damn. But it can’t and I don’t.
The economy sucks, the war in Iraq is costing us about $5 billion a week, the deficit’s out of control, and every time you turn on the TV, another giant corporation is either declaring bankruptcy or getting a bailout from the taxpayers. You don’t need an intellectual to tell you why this was a tough year to be a Republican, but that’s not going to stop the pointy-heads from explaining What It Really Means.
NOT TO PUT too fine a point on that pointy-head, but four years ago, Brooks looked at the election results and declared that “the values divide is a complex layering of conflicting views about faith, leadership, individualism, American exceptionalism, suburbia, Wal-Mart, decorum, economic opportunity, natural law, manliness, bourgeois virtues and a zillion other issues.”
Nothing about the Fed pumping currency as fast as the Treasury could print it, nothing about the ballooning deficit, nothing about the evaporation of normal standards of creditworthiness in mortgage lending, nothing about 2,500 U.S. combat deaths in Iraq that would occur in the next four years. No, in November 2004, Brooks explored the “complex layering” of various irrelevancies that had little to do with why 51 percent of Americans didn’t want that pompous blowhard John Kerry to be president.
Kerry had great hair, though — you’ve got to give him that much. Massachusetts has provided America an almost unbroken succession of thickly planted political scalps. The Kennedy brothers all had first-class presidential hair and even the doomstruck Mike Dukakis couldn’t be accused of any tonsorial shortcoming.
Maybe Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts hair would not have been enough to win the White House in this year of Republican “brand damage” and virulent Obamaphilia in the press corps. Yet my theory that the GOP suffered for nominating a 72-year-old bald guy is at least as valid as Brooks’s suggestion that Republicans lost because Tyrrell and his Traditionalist colleagues were “crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity.”
Given Brooks’s unimpressive track record in forecasting the political future, his invitation to overthink the recent political past shouldn’t get an RSVP from conservatives. Just try to find a Republican presidential nominee for 2012 with nice hair. Lipstick is optional.