As Republicans look towards choosing a presidential challenger for 2012, they should pay close attention to the candidate’s style and demeanor in contrast to President Obama’s. History teaches that only stark contrasts between challengers and incumbents can unseat a president.
Winning presidential challengers are the exception to the rule in modern presidential politics. In the last seventy-five years, only Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 have achieved this feat. None would have won these elections without drawing a sharp – even dramatic – contrast with their opponents to accentuate the incumbent’s failures or perceived shortcomings.
Carter, the Georgian peanut farmer, was a lightweight in every political sense in early 1976. But, following the acrid taste of Watergate and accidental presidency of Gerald Ford, the American people welcomed his meek innocence onto the national stage.
In 1980, Reagan was the antithesis of President Carter’s waffling fecklessness. The contrast spurred many to portray Reagan as a dangerous, gunslinging cowboy in a world requiring delicate diplomacy. No matter; the country took that chance, and he won in an electoral landslide.
Clinton, who months before his nomination was an unknown Southern governor, was an upstart middle-class champion who could empathize with victims of a difficult recession. The incumbent George H.W. Bush – while a nice man and dedicated public servant – was a distinguished, old-money New Englander. And so the nice rich guy lost that election.
In 2012, the GOP will again face a slightly modified version of Obama’s lofty “hope” and “change” rhetoric. Regardless of the abstract campaign platitudes put forth by the President’s reelection campaign (perhaps an acronym version of “winning the future”?), Republicans must nominate an attractive counter to this amorphously feel-good tone.
To highlight the President’s shallowness, the Republican candidate must be grounded and detail-oriented. He (or she) need not match the president’s soaring oratory, but instead connect with Americans’ problem-solving nature, without the need for a teleprompter. Empty ideological banalities must be challenged with practical solutions.
This is why Mitch Daniels stands out from the current field (a field that will not include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, as I recently lamented). While the Indiana governor has yet to declare an intention to run, his appeal is explained succinctly in George Will’s apt expression, “The Charisma of Competence.” His unassuming style is workmanlike and serious. No frills; just effective governing. Daniels is, as a National Review columnist recently suggested, a sort of Anti-Obama.
His balding head and pint-size 5’7 frame is, indeed, light-years away from presidential central casting. But voters in 2012 just may be ready for this kind of candidate, after being stuck with four years of idealistic nothingness. Let us hope is Mr. Daniels is similarly ready.
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