Bill Clinton once said that the difference between a Democratic presidential primary and a Republican one is that “Democrats want to fall in love. Republicans just fall in line.”
Clinton may have been correct about the way that primary voters in the two parties have chosen their standard bearers in modern era (although this year would seem to have Clinton’s equation reversed), but I’d go a step further:
General elections are all about falling in love.
And, this year, as in years past, the candidate who wins the presidency will not necessarily be the person with the better tax plan or the person with the more impressive resume. It will be the person with the more winning personality.
Some analysts might argue that all of the 2016 candidates have better personalities than Hillary Clinton. This may be true. But not all GOP personalities are created equal. And some personality types would have a better chance to beat Hillary than others.
I have written previously that there are four primary political personality archetypes: (1) Visionary; (2) Beer Candidate; (3) Technocrat; and (4) Careerist.
In my last post, I described Hillary Clinton as a classic Careerist – an experienced candidate with a stellar resume who feels entitled to be president because, well … it’s her turn, and, by golly, she’s earned it. (The Democratic party’s current, and I believe transient, love affair with Bernie Sanders only proves Bill Clinton’s original theory – that many Democrats are desperate to fall in love — something they are unlikely to do with his wife.)
Under my Rock, Paper, Scissors theory of electoral politics, an inspirational Visionary or a regular-guy Beer Candidate is best suited to beat a Careerist or a Technocrat in a general election. But Visionaries and Beer Candidates come in two varieties: the optimistic/sunny types and the pessimistic/rough-around-the edges types. And here’s an important corollary to the theory: only a Beer Candidate or Visionary of the optimistic/sunny variety is destined to prevail over a Careerist or a Technocrat in a general election.
Who of the viable 2016 Republican candidates would qualify?
Jeb Bush? The former Florida governor is smart and cerebral, but he lacks what his father famously called “that vision thing.” He also lacks his brother’s home-spun Texas charm. His recent e-book, “Reply All: A Governor’s Story 1999-2007” (a collection of e-mails from his time as governor) shows him to be a hands on problem solver, and his latest campaign motto “Jeb can fix it” reinforces his image as a man who gets things done. He is, in this sense, the heir to the Mitt Romney wing of the party. Put Jeb in the Technocrat category.
What about John Kasich? Although the Ohio Governor clearly has one of the best resumes of the group, boasting experience as a legislator (for almost two decades, Kasich served in Congress, where he was chairman of the House Budget Committee), in the private sector (Lehman Bros.), and as governor of an important swing state. Unfortunately, Kasich is not telegenic. His personality is wooden, his mannerisms sometimes bizarre. And he simply lacks the inspirational message that motivates people to go to the polls. Part Techocrat/Part Careerist, if I had to choose, I’d put Kasich in the Careerist camp.
Chris Christie is perhaps the GOP candidate who best excels at retail politics. “Authentic” is a word commonly used to describe the New Jersey governor, who, unlike many politicians, rarely uses notes when addressing a crowd and has an uncanny ability to personalize his answers to big policy questions (“We lost friends of ours in the trade center.” “I went to the funerals.”) Add to this his love of all things Bruce Springsteen, and you’ll find Christie in the Beer Candidate camp.
But the picture is more complicated. Although Christie comes across as a regular guy in the mold of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, those former presidents had one thing that Christie does not: southern charm. Christie is rougher around the edges. Some say he’s a bully. And, to many people, the only thing worse than a bully is a bully from Jersey (with all of the negative stereotypes that this conveys).
To be a successful Beer Candidate, a candidate needs to give people a sense of optimism and to exhibit empathy. And it is not clear that Christie can do that. Call Christie Beer Candidate-Negative.
Ted Cruz? Like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Cruz is a man a who is generally ideologically consistent.
And like the Reagan and Obama campaigns, the Cruz campaign is not mired in detail, but rather focused on hitting a few big themes (defeating radical Islamic terrorism, restoring the constitutional order, securing the border).
Generally, a candidate who campaigns on big ideas will defeat a candidate who campaigns on experience or as a good steward of government (see Obama v. McCain in 2008 and Obama v. Romney in 2012).
BUT — and this is a big but — Cruz lacks something that Reagan and Obama both possessed: a positive, upbeat, unifying message.
Recall that Reagan ran on the optimistic theme of “morning in America”; Obama ran on “hope” and on the promise of an America no longer divided along race, class, or party lines.
So far, Cruz’s message has been neither forward looking nor hopeful. Rather, his is a contrarian campaign, a campaign about undoing what has been done.
It also doesn’t help that Cruz speaks in a pinched, nasally, angry-sounding voice.
It may sound trite, but as Forbes magazine has noted, a candidate’s voice can be a major factor in determining how people feel about him or her. Fact is, people liked Reagan’s voice. People like Obama’s voice. Both Reagan and Obama spoke in strong, soothing, confidence-inspiring tones. Cruz speaks in sharp, bitter tones, which only underscores his negative image.
Perhaps most problematic is Cruz’s reputation as arrogant and uncollegial. This is not an insignificant stumbling block, as Cruz is almost universally hated by other members of his party — even those those who share his conservative political viewpoints.
Make no mistake, those who dislike Cruz do so not because he is too conservative or because he is willing to challenge the establishment. They dislike him because they regard him as a jerk. They regard him as a man incapable of winning the love of the American people. They worry that he would engender the hatred of the electorate (as he has the political class) and that he would, thereby, pose an existential threat to the party and to Republicans further down the ticket.
So, although he might be ideologically principled, his image is so sharp and off-putting that he qualifies as a Visionary-Negative.
Like Cruz, Marco Rubio has put forth an ideologically consistent message. And, like Cruz, Rubio also is running on big themes (preserving the American Dream, restoring America’s leadership role in the world, and building up a strong national defense, which includes securing the border).
But, unlike Cruz, Rubio’s demeanor is sunny.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and this one says much about these two candidates. Where Cruz is a pessimist, Rubio is an optimist. Where Cruz seems angry, Rubio seems hopeful. Where Cruz seems bitter, Rubio seems grateful.
Although some might call Rubio, who has spent the better part of two decades in politics, a Careerist, he presents not as a candidate running to advance his own resume but as one running to advance his country. His strong conservative principles combined with his unabashed patriotism make him the most Reaganesque of the current field, which is why I put Rubio in the Visionary camp.
Donald Trump, of course, defies categorization.
He clearly is no ideological visionary — if he has an ideology at all, it is the ideology of self.
But he does possess some of the personality traits of a Visionary in that he is dynamic and telegenic – not to mention extremely entertaining. But a showman without vision is a demagogue – trading on telegenic qualities and dynamic personality to sell, not ideas, but the cult of personality.
On paper, he reads as a Technocrat — a real estate mogul who can cut a deal and get things done. But he has none of the genteel, patrician mannerisms of, says, a Mitt Romney or a George H.W. Bush.
To the contrary, Trump can speak the language of regular Americans in the same way that Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush can. It is this ability to connect with regular people (despite being a billionaire) that makes Trump, predominantly, a Beer Candidate.
But like Christie, Trump suffers from a reputation as a bully. And worse – he is regarded by many as crass and vulgar.
In short, Trump exhibits some of the characteristics of three of the four archetypes: Beer Candidate, Technocrat, and Visionary. The only archetype he seems not to embody at all is that of Careerist. As a man who has never held elected office, he is the ultimate outsider. The anti-Careerist. And perhaps this is part of the reason why, to date, he has been so successful.
So, who can beat Hillary Clinton?
Almost certainly not Bush, who bores people to tears, or Cruz, whose negatives are sky-high.
A race between Clinton and Kasich, two pragmatic Careerists, in my view, would be too close to call.
Although I never would have said so six months ago, I now believe that Trump, who combines many of the personality traits of a Beer Candidate with the telegenic personality of a Visionary and the business creds of a Technocrat, could win a general election against Hillary.
For a variety of reasons, I do not think Trump deserves to be the nominee. Nor do I think he would be a good president. But I now think he can win.
That said, the candidate I believe best to positioned to beat Hillary Clinton in November — and who is more principled, more conservative, and more qualified to lead the nation than Trump — is Marco Rubio, the only optimistic-Visionary in the group.
Here’s hoping Republican primary voters come to that same conclusion.