AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma
Sen. John Kerry campaigning in 2003.
On Lean Forward Tuesday, Paul Waldman drew attention to an interesting development: Republicans and conservatives this year seem eager to downplay the importance of character and likability in a presidential candidate. They've slammed the press for focusing on aspects of Mitt Romney's lifestyle (the houses, the horses), rather than sticking to "the issues."
That's a stark contrast, Waldman wrote, from previous elections, in which Republicans incessantly told us that character matters, and that Al Gore's exaggerations or John Kerry's windsurfing were crucial windows into their souls. And the 180 is almost certainly down to the fact that this year, they're saddled with a nominee who, it's fair to say, lacks the common touch.
Today comes a perfect example of Waldman's point. In a column in The Washington Post, Kathleen Parker, a conservative, says we shouldn't worry about whether Obama or Romney is more of a regular guy.
The notion that one presidential candidate relates more than another to the ordinary American’s everyday concerns is cringingly absurd. There’s nothing “everyday” about either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and why, really, would we want them to be?
There’s no point in trying to portray Romney as an everyday kind of guy. From his lucky birth to his significant accomplishments, he is anything but ordinary. Trying to blunt his résumé to make him more "likable” — perish that trivial pursuit while we’re at it — ultimately enhances the likelihood of the opposite result.
Parker's right that the who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with? standard turned out to be a disastrous way of picking the most powerful person in the world. But like many of her fellow conservatives, she seems to have evolved on the issue. In a January 2005 column, Parker explained President Bush's recent victory over John Kerry thusly:
Come election time, the essential question wasn't whether men should marry men or women should be allowed access to abortion, but which candidate Americans trusted more to do the right thing most often. And which man Americans trusted most to protect them in a world given to madmen (and women) who willingly would blow themselves up for the pleasure of killing Americans.
This is where Kerry's persona came into play. Was it the way he looked? The way he talked? Yes and yes, which poses its own little mystery. In nearly every way, Kerry seemed born to the presidency. Straight out of central casting, he had the right looks, the right resume, the Purple Hearts. Everything but "it." The je ne sais quoi of love and politics. We have a hard time defining "it," whateveritis--warmth, humility, sincerity?--but we know when it's absent.
So let's get this straight. When George W. Bush faced John Kerry, voters rightly punished Kerry for "the way he looked" and "the way he talked," as well as his lack of "warmth, humility, and sincerity." When Barack Obama faces Mitt Romney, assessing which candidate is more "likable' is nothing but a "trivial pursuit."
It's not hard to see how this game works...