It ordinarily would be way too early to be obsessing as much about the presidential field as many of us have been doing, but the urgency is based on reasonable concerns.
If Barack Obama gets four more years to spend us into oblivion, issue authoritarian executive orders, seed the bureaucracy with radical leftists who make administrative rulings inimical to the American tradition, use the Justice Department to abuse the law and bully his opponents, populate the federal courts with anti-constitutional power-trippers and trans-nationalists, undermine the military, and betray American alliances and interests, it is a serious question whether this nation as we know it can survive. Conservatives and Republicans therefore must, absolutely must, get their selection right. They must find a candidate of decent enough principles and leadership ability to govern in daunting times, and of sufficient — meaning superb — political skills to beat Obama, with his billion-dollar campaign and his worshippers in the establishment media, in the general election. This is a tall order, and it is one there is good reason to doubt will be filled by those currently expected to enter the race.
Hence the obsession.
It must be said upfront that I have become rather partial to Sen. Rick Santorum, whose record in 16 years in office was among the best in all of Congress, and whose tremendous political skills, especially as an underdog, are remarkably under-rated by too many political pros. Plus, he is personable, approachable, and seemingly without pretense, a man of sincerity and palpable decency.
Still, one worries, in a year where finding a winner is of especially paramount importance, if Santorum can convince Republican voters that he really is a winner despite his landslide loss for re-election in Pennsylvania in 2006. No matter how convincingly and reasonably he answers these concerns for those who will listen, there is some doubt whether he can convince enough people to listen in the first place. If he can, he could be the sleeper candidate to watch — but if not, many conservatives still are without a clear choice.
Thus the disappointment that so many other people who ought to be running are staying out of the race, or at least making no moves at all to get in it. Among that number of apparent non-entrants who could, in their own unique ways, fill the last void in the race are Mike Pence of Indiana, Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Bob Riley of Alabama. (Of those four, only Riley has even left the door slightly ajar.) Another large number of rising stars could really make a good case in 2016, but it’s too early for them in 2012. They include Pence (again), Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Marco Rubio of Florida, both John Kasich and Rob Portman of Ohio, both Scott Walker and Paul Ryan (and maybe even Ron Johnson) of Wisconsin, both Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and of course a number of others who could emerge in the next five years.
Barring a surprise, then, what conservatives see, for both bad and good, is what we will need to work with. The task will be for one of the candidates to develop a compelling, positive narrative, with compelling, positive issue proposals, that can cut through the media fog and Obama’s money, and overcome the Justice Department-encouraged election shenanigans, so that he (or she) can galvanize a winning electoral surge.
The narrative is important. It shouldn’t be the candidate’s own narrative, but the candidate’s vision for (and version of) the nation’s narrative. We don’t need to hear how Tim Pawlenty was the first one in his family to go to college and therefore understands people who shop at Sam’s Club, and we don’t need to hear what Newt Gingrich learned from working on Nelson Rockefeller’s behalf in New Orleans in 1968. (Then again, he probably doesn’t want us to know he worked for Rockefeller.) What we need to know is how we as the American people are going to overcome daunting indebtedness and a hostile world to achieve the bright tomorrows Ronald Reagan said he always saw for us. We need the story to be both practical and romantic at the same time — to make sense and also to make magic. The elder Bush belittled it as “the vision thing,” but that’s exactly what is needed: a sense that a candidate sees both where he wants us to go and how (with a certain specificity) we will get there.
As for the issue proposals, I’ve got ’em right here if any campaign wants to call me for them. Seriously. There are proposals available to solve not all but maybe half of the problems of the American political world, in a way a majority of the public will buy into. Good policy and good messaging can meet, creating really good politics and eventually good governance. The trick is to fit the proposals into the narrative, as part and parcel of the story; without the narrative, which must spring from a candidate’s individual worldview, the proposals may not catch fire. (Hence my reticence to outline the proposals here and now, although past writings give a hint of earlier versions of them.)
Storytelling is an essential part of good politics — non-fiction storytelling, that is. Yet after Reagan, it has become a lost art at the presidential campaign level. Bill Clinton had a smallish sense of it on his better days, but his real genius lay in faking empathy. Nobody else on the national scene has had even a smidgen of a bard’s gift, and fewer still have the sincerity, knowledge and experience to weave real substance into their songs.
Most great leaders develop this ability. Lincoln had it. Churchill had it. Reagan had it. Jack Kemp had some of it, although he tended to overdo it like an over-eager thespian. Gingrich can do it well when he maintains enough discipline to keep the story from being all about himself. Pence has that ability in spades, but he’s not running. The need is desperate for somebody else to develop it.
If nobody does, then Barack Obama, with all the advantages of incumbency, money and media, will indeed be re-elected. That occurrence would turn the American story into a tragedy — a tragedy worth obsessing about how to stop.