He also avoided repeating the horrors of another P-for-Personality Pick: Palin in 2008. With the profound unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration in its final months, John McCain and his advisers felt they had no chance to win a campaign of ideas or issues and so determined to push to victory on the strength of personal narrative. They would counter Obama’s compelling Kenya-meets-Kansas, barrier-breaking, community-organizer, hope-and-change fairy tale with an inspiriting story of their own. They meant to captivate the nation with an account of two untamable mavericks: the feisty war hero and former POW who never tired of tweaking his party’s establishment joined in righteous combat with the insurgent hockey mom and moose hunter from Wasilla with a son in the military, the ordinary-folks upstart who had shaken up the Republican old guard in exotic Alaska.
It worked for a while, helped to no small degree by one of Governor Palin’s most important P-word advantages: Pulchritude, or Prettiness.
But those who live by personality campaigns also can perish by them, and the Democrats piled on concerning every conceivable detail of the Palin family’s most intimate undertakings, from Bristol’s personal life to the firing of the governor’s state-trooper brother-in-law to disputes over dirty books in the Wasilla library. Meanwhile, the more radical aspects of the Obama agenda got little attention.
In part personal issues dominated the Palin campaign because her political experience remained so limited, with less than two years as governor before her nomination. It’s hard to establish a clear record on the issues when you’ve served in an important office for less than a full term.
Marco Rubio, a far more compelling personality with a far more compelling story than Paul Ryan has, would have offered similar problems, with less than two years as a U.S. senator. Though Rubio’s status as a brilliant communicator and his prior service as speaker of the House in the Florida Legislature made him far more prepared than Palin, nearly all the discussion about his candidacy would have concerned personal narrative, ethnic identity, and his nearly incomparable charisma.
Romney wanted a more issues-oriented focus, and he’s guaranteed to get it with Paul Ryan. For better or worse, Ryan’s “Roadmap for America” and budget plan—not cute stories about his family or upbringing—will be the focus of the Republican campaign. With Ryan, his positions on the questions of the day after seven substantive terms in the House stand as clear and courageous and inescapable.
Initial impressions: it’s good to go the R Route, rather than the P-for-Personality Pathway.
In 1975 a peerless Republican told the Young Americans for Freedom that the road to victory involved sketching clear differences with the opposition rather than blurring distinctions or concentrating on personal distractions. “Let’s have a new first party, a new Republican Party raising a banner of bold colors, not Pale Pastels.”
In that spirit, the Romney-Ryan ticket with its R-R Resonance evokes the most beloved (and successful) GOP candidate of them all: Ronald Reagan.