Democrats are down, and sniping at each other. That’s the way it goes when parties lose. What’s interesting is the mood this week among Republicans on the ground. It’s not triumphal. They all seem to have in the back of their minds a question: Is this election the beginning of the big turnaround? Is this when the GOP comes to the fore as its best self and soberly, shrewdly pursues policies that will help dig our country out of the mess? Or will the great sweep of 2010 come to be seen, in retrospect, as just another lurch and shift in a nation whose political tectonic plates have been unstable since 2006?
They’re not sure, but there’s a high degree of hope for the former. And that’s news, because Republicans haven’t been hopeful in a long time.
They continue to be blessed by luck. Whatever word means the opposite of snakebit, that is what the Republican party is right now. One reason they are feeling hope is that they have received two big and unexpected gifts from President Obama. The first, of course, was his political implosion—his quick descent and speedy fall into unpopularity, which shaped the outcome of the 2010 elections. At the heart of that descent was the president’s inability to understand how the majority of Americans were thinking. From the day he was sworn in he seemed to have had no practical or intuitive sense of what was on the American mind. By early 2009 they had one deep and central worry, the economy. But his central preoccupation was reforming health care. He devoted his first 18 months to it and got what he wanted, but at the price of seeming wholly out of touch with the thoughts and concerns of the American people.
This week the president gave Republicans a second unexpected gift. He reacted to the election’s outcome in a way that suggested he’s still in his own world, still seeing a reality no one else is seeing. The problem wasn’t his policies, but that he didn’t explain them well. It wasn’t health-care reform, it was his failed attempt to popularize it. His problem was that he was not political enough. He was too substantive, too serious. Americans have been under stress, and people under stress don’t think clearly, and so they couldn’t see the size of his achievements.
He sounded like a man who couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else, and once again made his political adversaries seem, in comparison, more realistic, more clear-sighted and responsive to public opinion. And he did this while everyone was watching. Again, what a gift.
Two areas seem to me key for Republican leaders in Washington. One is a long-term concern, the other an immediate one.
The first has to do with the art of political persuasion. A month ago, in conversation with a veteran Democrat, I mentioned that the old cliché is now truer than ever, that everything happens in the center. The path to victory is through the center, that’s where things are won. The Democrat nodded vigorously. “Compromise,” she said, “it’s so important.”
But compromise was not my point. Persuasion was my point. Compromise is a tool you use to get the best legislation possible, but you have to persuade the big center that your way is the better way. We’re in an age where politicians assert, insist and leave. It’s all quick, blunt and dumb. But to win and hold the center you have to make your case, you have to show you’re philosophically serious, you have to show your logic, and connect it to a philosophy. You don’t sit around saying, “I like centrists so I compromise,” you say, “Here’s what we believe, here’s how we think and why.”
The establishment of the GOP hasn’t been good at this. Some of them aren’t philosophically serious. Some don’t know that persuasion is at the heart of things. Some know but aren’t good at it. Some think they’re never given quite the right venue to expand on their views, or questioned in the right way. They should create venues.
A lot of this will fall to the newly elected congressmen and senators, and the philosophically inclined incumbents who’ve been quiet and let the leadership dominate the stage the past few years.
Right now the center is with the Republicans. They voted like Democrats in 2008 and like Republicans in 2010. But there’s going to be lots of drama in Washington the next few months, and things could turn on a dime. To hold the center you have to respect your own case enough to argue for it, and respect the people enough to explain it.
The second area has to do with the media environment that will exist in January, when the new Congress is sworn in. The mainstream media already has a story line in its head, and it is that a lot of these new Congress critters are a little radical, a little nutty.
Media bias is what we all know it is, largely political but also having to do with the needs of editors and producers. The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn’t bland, that has a certain edge. We saw this throughout the past year as they covered big tea party rallies.
A reporter would be walking along with a cameraman. At one picnic blanket she sees a sober fellow and his handsome family. He looks like an orthodontist or a midlevel manager. His family looks happy, normal, pleasant. Right next to them, on a foldout lawn chair, is a scowling woman in a big straw bonnet with a dozen tea bags hanging from the brim. She’s holding a sign, a picture of Obama in a Hitler mustache. Who does the reporter choose to interview? I think we know. A better question might be who would you pick if you were that reporter and had a producer back in the newsroom who wanted interesting copy, colorful characters and vivid pictures.
The mainstream media this January will be looking for the nuts.
I saw this in 1994, when the new Republican Congress came in. The media had a storyline in their head then, too: These wild and crazy righties who just got elected are . . . wild and crazy. They focused their cameras on people who could be portrayed as nutty, and found them. The spirited Helen Chenoweth, freshman from Idaho, talked a little too much about “black helicopters.” She was portrayed as paranoid and eccentric. Bob Livingston, from New Orleans, went to his first meeting of the Appropriations Committee wielding a machete. The new speaker, Newt Gingrich, was full of pronouncements and provocations; he was a one-man drama machine.
It was a high spirited group, and one operating without a conservative media infrastructure to defend them. They and others were caught and tagged like big wild birds, then released into the air, damaged.
The point is when they want to paint you as nuts and yahoos, don’t help them paint you as nuts and yahoos. It’s good to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said, speaking in a different context, that she didn’t really care what people did as long as they didn’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
That would be the advice for incoming Republicans: Stand tall, speak clear, and don’t frighten the horses.