And that, I fear, may be the key word: "popular." In my darker moods, I suspect that American politics, at least at the presidential level, is ultimately just a popularity contest. In the television age, the more personally charming guy wins -- or at minimum has a monumental advantage.
Partisans on both sides tend to not like this argument for all sorts of reasons. For instance, they tend to like their candidates better than the other team's. Of course, this is often just a rationalization. If you honestly believed that Michael Dukakis was a more likable guy than George H.W. Bush, or that Nixon would be a more entertaining drinking buddy than JFK, you should seek therapy, or a vigorous regimen of enemas, or both. The simple fact is that if John Kerry and Al Gore weren't pompous human toothaches, they would have blown George W. Bush out of the water.
Also, partisans like to believe that whenever their guy wins, it's because their ideas have been ratified by the American people, and whenever the other guy loses, they pronounce that the American people have resoundingly rejected this or that idea. Sometimes this is obviously true, but not nearly as often as we like to think. Obama, after all, promised over and over that his administration would provide a "net spending cut." How's that going?
Liberals bristled at -- but didn't really deny -- the suggestion that voters preferred Bush because they'd rather "have a beer with him." What they fail to fully appreciate is that many voters preferred Obama because they'd rather have a chardonnay with him than with that cranky John McCain. Obama's winning personality and a widespread yearning for ill-defined "change" were probably more essential to Obama's victory than his campaign proposals.
So what does this mean for conservatives? Well, it doesn't mean that we should stop debating ideas. But it also probably means that we won't have a chance to implement those ideas until the GOP finds a winning salesman or vessel for them, and that person doesn't seem to exist right now. Again, I'm speaking to my fears, not my hopes.
On the bright side, nobody knew who the hell Barack Obama was the day before yesterday either.