In the aftermath of the president’s re-election, there’s a lot of teeth-gnashing among Democrats about “what does our party do now?” Here’s the answer: Stop choosing lousy candidates.
You’d think they would have learned this lesson in the 1980s, after the debacles of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Even most Democrats didn’t believe John Kerry was the best option for America’s future. The problem was that none of the other candidates in the primaries was any better.
America wasn’t going to elect Howard Dean, Wesley Clark or the field entry of Al Sharpton/Carol Moseley Braun/Dennis Kucinich. The Democrats didn’t have a Bright Shining Star, they had The Best We Can Do, which is not how you win the White House. The election didn’t come down to Bush vs. Kerry; it came down to Bush vs. Not Bush.
For 2008, the Democrats have to find someone who can pull off the Regular Guy act. Americans aren’t attracted to the aloof brilliant thinker. Those are guys they called nerd and dweeb in high school, who never had dates and got picked last for the game. They probably went on to become vascular surgeons and run hugely successful multinational corporations, but those people aren’t who get elected president of the United States.
Americans want someone with charisma who looks and acts like he’s in control and can get others to do his bidding for whatever principles he stands for. This is the 21st century; Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t stand a chance.
President George W. Bush pulls off the Regular Guy act brilliantly. Sure, he went to Andover and Yale and lived a life of incredible luxury, but people still see him as the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with. He may have been only a “C” student in college, but he was a “C” student at Yale, not St. Louis Community College at Meramec. People who write him off as stupid don’t get it.
Ronald Reagan had the same magnetism — more, actually — the leader of a cause who acted like a cowboy with an aw-shucks demeanor and played the role of underdog against those tough bad guys of The (eastern, establishment, elite, ultra-liberal) Media.
Bill Clinton had It, too. He was a Rhodes scholar and total policy wonk who could stay up all night long debating legislative ideas and opportunities. Yet even his enemies said he could charm the pants off of you (or himself, unfortunately).
Dubya’s dad, Bush 41, didn’t have It. He rode into the White House on Reagan’s coattails, but then couldn’t convince America he was enough of a Regular Guy to get a second term. (His real problem was that the Regular Guy in his family was his wife, Barbara!)
So now the Democrats have to look for a Regular Guy for 2008. Is it Hillary Rodham Clinton? No. Too much baggage; the red states already hate her, she can’t win them over, and she can’t play the part. If America’s going to elect a woman, she has to be more Oprah than Hillary. Oprah Winfrey could give them a car and make them love the idea without telling them about the tax bill that comes with it.
Is it John Edwards? No. He can be folksy, he has an undeniable connection with people, and friends who’ve seen him in person tell me he’s one of the best stump speakers ever. But Edwards couldn’t even deliver his home state for Kerry. He would have to overcome the “loser” label, and no one has done that since Nixon.
So, who will it be? Whoever their Regular Guy turns out to be, most Americans haven’t heard of him. Yet.
This column originally appeared as an op-ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.