Matt Lewis

The case for charisma: Are our congressional leaders still operating in a 20th century paradigm?

I recently wrote about all the problems associated with being a modern Speaker of the House. Because of the lack of earmarks to bribe Members with (and other societal changes), the job is much more difficult than ever.

But as we watch the Republican House continue to take a public relations beating, another problem has become obvious: It’s hard to win against a president — and his bully pulpit.

There are many factors involved here. Presidents can act unilaterally, while speakers (now days, especially) cannot. And, of course, liberal media bias cannot be underestimated. What is more, there is a sort of latent monarchical urge for Americans to admire a strong man who gets things done.

Since at least 1960, it has been clear that a presidential candidate must be telegenic. Even after both parties accepted this notion (when selecting their nominees), the more charismatic candidates (think Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, et al.) usually won the general election.

Yet, this superficial trend didn’t manifest itself in Congress. Since the public doesn’t vote on congressional leaders, this was predictable. Presidents mostly played the outside game of wholesale politics, whereas Congress was all about retail politics.

And it didn’t much matter, either, since few average Americans (who didn’t watch C-SPAN or Sunday morning talk shows) could identify even congressional leaders (with the exception of, say, Newt Gingrich.). For this reason, leaders like McConnell, Reid, Boehner, et al. survived — and prospered.

So how can Congress compete with a president in the court of public opini0n?

With the 24-hour news cycle, twitter, etc., might we be arriving at a time when even our congressional leaders need to be eloquent and telegnic? When counting votes and cajoling Members was the primary job description, men like Sam Rayburn, a Tip O’Neil, and LBJ excelled.

But the carrots and sticks they wielded in the House and senate have largely disappeared, and more and more, the job of a congressional leader has become a communications/public relations/management position. How can an inside political player compete with a polished president in the modern era?

Should today’s congressional leaders better reflect the times?