If John Boehner started preaching the virtues of socialism tomorrow morning, the entire planet would turn capitalist by noon. Boehner is a walking, talking charisma vortex. When he’s not speaking or crying, he has the look of a man about to apologize. And Mitch McConnell sounds like Foghorn Leghorn. They may be decent men, but Boehner and McConnell are the leaders of and chief communicators for the Republican Party. Why?
Because the right has a seniority fetish. Conservatives are always looking to the next guy in line for leadership.
The left doesn’t have this problem.
In 2006, the Vegas odds of Barack Obama winning the presidency were somewhere between the odds of the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl and the odds of Pope Benedict converting to Wicca. Hillary was next in line and everyone knew it. She was a shoo-in. The Clintons were expecting the nomination to arrive by mail.
Then Obama began to speak. And heads began to turn. That man could really talk.
Obama was young and inexperienced. He was unknown, untested and unmoneyed. His resume was light. His name sounded foreign. His friends were troubling. And his opponent was a fully funded juggernaut with a head full of steam and key support from the left’s biggest power brokers. Hillary had the cash, the pedigree, the name recognition and a veteran staff who knew how to win. And against Clinton and her campaign Death Star, Obama had talk — a gift for delivering a speech. In the Iowa caucuses, the Democrats dumped Hillary faster than Bill ever did.
And what about Bill? In 1991, he was a nobody. He governed a state that ranked close to dead last in every category except pollution and crime. As a governor, he was scandal-prone. As a candidate, he was often criticized for being undisciplined and unreliable. As for the man himself, he was a draft-dodging, philandering ex-pothead, and veritable hordes of Arkansas hairdressers had pet names for him.
But that man could talk.
The left generally prizes the ability to inspire and persuade higher than any other candidate characteristic. On the right, a candidate’s credentials, connections and proven ability to fundraise are paramount. Those attributes are only accumulated over the course of an expansive career, so valuing them highly remands the aptitude for connecting with the common voter to a tertiary consideration. That’s a big problem.
George H.W. Bush was a decorated WWII hero, a former head of the CIA, an heir to the Reagan legacy and a sitting president of the United States. John McCain was a Vietnam hero, a former prisoner of war who had been in public service since before his opponent was born. Each lost the White House to inferior men (at the very least, inferior on paper).
At this moment, many Washington and northeast Republicans are discussing how to make “a bigger tent.” They hope to tweak the GOP’s message to appeal to new constituencies. It won’t work for two reasons. First, our message can’t really change. We believe in individual liberty, individual responsibility and smaller government. That’s it. Barack Obama can promise new entitlements to the people. He can even try to deliver on those promises. Conservatives can’t. Second, even if Connecticut wordsmiths crafted the mythically embracive, perfect message, Republican leaders like Boehner and McConnell would still be the messengers.
We don’t need a better message. In truth, there is no better political message. Conservatism is an uplifting philosophy. It looks individuals straight in the eye and says, “You are capable.” Instead of a new message, we need better messengers. We need men who don’t need talking points to make a case for conservatism. We need men who understand that conservatism isn’t just a good system of government, but a recipe for individual happiness.
In response to Obama’s aggressive inaugural address, John Boehner whined about the president’s intention to “annihilate the Republican Party.” Mitch McConnell joined the Boehner chorus with, “One thing is clear from the president’s speech: The era of liberalism is back.” Each statement was typical, reactive and indicative of what to expect from our current leadership.
Our seniority fetish is a natural outgrowth of conservatism — an ideology that respects tradition, instills humility and carries a healthy dread of man’s capacity for evil. But American conservatism has taken on a defensive posture that is not natural to the philosophy. Our leaders whine about the left and often offer critiques, but that’s not conservatism. That’s how losers lose.
If you believe in something, you don’t merely defend it. You champion its virtues. You promote it. You make a case for it. You hope — for lack of a better word — to sell it. Politics, if nothing else, is salesmanship.
And there are buyers in the market. There were 13 million fewer voters in 2012 than there were in 2008. One of conservatism’s cornerstones is a belief in the free market. Barack Obama and the left are still selling statism. They deserve some competition.
Yates Walker is a conservative activist and writer. Before becoming involved in politics, he served honorably as a paratrooper and a medic in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.