The Conservative Crackup

Looking Beyond the Beltway
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 7 2008 3:44 PM

The Conservative Crackup

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Douglas, Tucker, Jim, Kathleen, and Christine,

I don't want to hijack this entire discussion, so let me just say that I appreciate Douglas Kmiec's prayers and leave it at that.

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I do, however, want to second Tucker's earlier point about the importance of finding candidates who can actually communicate. Going back to Bush the elder, the GOP has now produced four successive nominees for president whose relationship to the English language is about as fraught as Bill Clinton's relationship to Barack Obama. Indeed, the famously tongue-tied George W. Bush may have been the best communicator of the lot. (There were times during this campaign when watching John McCain try to talk about, say, his health care plan made me pine for the days of "Is our children learning?")

One lesson here—which is conventional wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless—is that you shouldn't nominate for president anyone who's spent most of his political career in Washington, D.C. Like Bob Dole and H.W. Bush before him, McCain has a knack for speaking in inside-the-Beltway shorthand, a lingo that's ideal for the Sunday morning show circuit but just terrible for the campaign trail. Time and again during the debates, Obama would deliberately step back and try to frame—or reframe—whatever topic was under discussion, placing it in context for viewers at home. And time and again, McCain would respond with underexplained references to legislation he'd championed, or bills Obama had opposed, or American policy toward Colombia, or some other topic that required vastly more elucidation to have any hope of resonating with the general public.

My hope, when Sarah Palin was plucked from the frozen north to serve as McCain's running mate, was that she'd help remedy this defect in his candidacy—that she'd turn out to be an Alaskan answer to Mike Huckabee, with perhaps a little less corn pone and a little more facility for policy detail. This hope died with the Katie Couric interview, obviously, and while I think that Kathleen has been somewhat too hard on Palin herself—the buck for the "redneck strategy," such as it was, has to stop with the nongeniuses running the McCain campaign—there's no question that the conservative reaction to Palin's difficulties bodes ill for the GOP's future. It may be, as many right-wingers argued this autumn, that sound instincts are more important than communication skills when it comes to governance. But I'm pretty sure that Tucker's right, and that you can't have successful governance in a mass democracy if you can't persuade the public that you're right about the important issues of the day.

This capacity for persuasion was Reagan's great gift, obviously, and Clinton's, too; it may be Obama's as well, though his inspirational rhetoric lacks the seductive quality that the Gipper and the man from Hope could call upon at will. At the very least, though, he's better at communication than anyone in the GOP leadership at the moment. And for the present-day Republican Party—a party that's in opposition, that's fighting a reputation for incompetence and anti-intellectualism, and that's lost the public's trust on nearly every domestic issue of note—the search for national leaders with this gift should be as high a priority as the search for an agenda that they can run on.

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