Newt Gingrich began this week by releasing a minute-long campaign ad titled “Rebuilding the America We Love,” in which the veteran Republican insists that the wholesome, idyllic, small-town America that we all recognize from movies and advertising still exists. The ad is not terribly convincing, partly because it’s a rather uninspired retread of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” spot from 1984, and partly because, while Reagan was talking up the good times, Gingrich is talking down the bad.
But the bigger problem is that the ad softens Gingrich’s image to an absurd degree. The clip drastically undersells his assertive nature: He looks more likely to surprise you with a batch of fresh-baked cookies than to become a credible authority figure. Even if you loathe the guy and are actively rooting against his campaign to win the GOP nomination for president, it’s hard to see him like this. Where’s the swagger, the commanding presence? Why can’t this guy be more like Ron Swanson?
For those of you not yet hooked on NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup—and judging by the block’s dismal ratings, that’s quite a lot of you—Ron Swanson is the breakout character of Parks and Recreation, a show about local government in small-town Indiana. Swanson, played by Nick Offerman, is essentially an optimistic fantasy of a conservative politician. He’s stoic and deeply hostile to the very notion of government, but ultimately kind-hearted and genuinely concerned for the well-being of other people. He’s a throwback, in some ways, to the Teddy Roosevelt image of conservatism—hyper-masculine, outdoorsy, self-sufficient. (Swanson probably would not have created any National Parks, however.) Ron doesn’t care much what other people do with their lives, so long as they stay out of his business.
Remarkably, though the audience for Parks and Recreation almost certainly skews liberal, coastal, and affluent, Ron Swanson has become an aspirational icon of old-school masculinity and conservative values. Fans of the show don’t just like Ron—they idolize him, revering his no-nonsense attitude (along with his glorious mustache and incredible enthusiasm for bacon and eggs), even as he teaches nine-year-olds that collecting taxes is like stealing a kid’s lunch.
Republican candidates ought to be taking notes. The Swanson persona could help not only in capturing the imagination of the Republican base but also a significant portion of swing voters. Just as The West Wing’s President Bartlett embodied the fantasies of many left-leaning voters, Ron Swanson represents the most attractive and inspiring elements of conservative ideology—and without all the polarizing baggage of the Culture Wars.
Of the current crop of presidential hopefuls, only Ron Paul shares the strict libertarian politics of Swanson. But Paul lacks the understated charm and air of paternal wisdom. Mitt Romney can occasionally tap into that paternal vibe, but it’s more of a stepfatherly thing that makes you want to shout “You’re not my real dad!” whenever he appears on television.
In fleeting moments, Gingrich has flashes of Swanson-ness, mainly when he eases up and reveals himself to be a brainy policy wonk with at least some commitment to his ideals. But this is pretty rare—since he came to prominence in the early ’90s, Gingrich has mostly projected an anxious, self-conscious, power-hungry persona. And Gingrich’s history of excessive partisanship is at odds with Swanson’s pragmatism, which leads Swanson to collaborate with his liberal colleagues without entirely abandoning his beliefs. (Sadly, Swanson’s willingness to play nice with other politicians in order to keep the peace is the aspect of the character that is most obviously a fantasy for left-leaning viewers.)
Is it too late to remake Gingrich in the image of Ron Swanson? Perhaps. Any politician aiming for true Swanson-ness would probably have to come by it authentically, as the character’s working-class and rural roots provide a key to appreciating his obsession with self-sufficiency. Still, the character’s focus on personal responsibility, no-nonsense maturity, and unstinting competence will only become more resonant and comforting as the long-term realities of America’s economic downturn set in. For now, Gingrich could at least give that mustache a try.