Jim Geraghty asked a good question (a frequent occurrence!) the other day on The Corner. “If you want to change American culture,” he wrote, in the light of the presidential-announcement themes of Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, “should you be running for president?”
Geraghty isn’t sure of the answer, and neither am I. It’s not immediately clear whether a political office, even the presidency, is as good a place from which to change the culture as is a movie studio or a sound stage or a college classroom.
But there’s a parallel question that should concern conservatives at least as much: Can a conservative win the presidency if his cultural markings seem alien to too many American voters?
Mitt Romney’s experience indicates that the answer is no. More voters agreed on more key issues with Romney than with Barack Obama. Yet — as has been well publicized — Romney was crushed, 81–18, on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.” Despite first appearances, this isn’t merely a touchy-feely “empathy” question. It’s at least as much a question about cultural cues. The key part of the question isn’t cares, but cares about people like me.
We’ve all heard about the widely reported turnout deficit in 2012 among what Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics accurately described as “largely downscale, Northern, rural whites. In other words, H. Ross Perot voters.” It takes no great powers of observation or analysis to understand that they stayed home, rather than stand in voting lines at the end of a long workday, because although they were disillusioned with Obama they just felt no affinity for the high-finance, starched-shirt, stiff-mannered Romney.
Rick Santorum would have appealed to them. Mike Huckabee, for all his considerable flaws, might well have appealed to them. Scott Walker and maybe John Kasich will have some success appealing to them in 2016. But not Romney. Nor did the elder Bush in 1992, once he was on his own rather than running effectively as Ronald Reagan’s surrogate.
Culturally, this is no longer Ronald Reagan’s America, which is why Reagan-like landslides are unlikely for Republican presidential nominees any time soon.
The Left can run anybody reasonably qualified and count on, say, 46 to 48 percent of the vote. That’s the size of the combination of coastal elites, single professional women, young voters, environmentalists, minorities, and union activists that is in tune with the popular-media culture. Culturally, this is no longer Ronald Reagan’s America, which is why Reagan-like landslides are unlikely for Republican presidential nominees any time soon.
The question then becomes how to cobble together a majority by “running the table,” as it were, among the 52 to 54 percent of the country that remains at least open to conservative principles of limited government, strong defense, and traditional values. The numbers fully on board with these principles are considerably lower than a majority; the majority is available only to a candidate who can both inspire those fully on board and make the principles attractive to a floating 10 to 14 percent who just want to feel they are heard, understood, and appreciated.
Jeb Bush isn’t likely to be able to do it. His voice drips with disdain for those who disagree with him on any number of issues, and he has none of the common touch of his more gregarious brother. And, of course, he’s another Bush, in a country increasingly turning against dynasties (see: losses by Landrieu, Udall, Nunn, Pryor, Carter, Begich) and other trappings of the ruling class. He’s well positioned to win the string of pluralities necessary to secure the Republican nomination, but he’s likely to repeat Romney’s regrettable results in a general election.
Carly Fiorina, a former business tycoon who was evicted from her post in what amounted to a shareholder revolt, can’t do it. Rand Paul opens up new avenues, perhaps, to the young, but his intermittent bouts of weirdness and nastiness would make him seem more than a little too, well, esoteric for uncertain times. He can’t win the whole thing either.
What’s needed is somebody who won’t back down on questions of liberty, civic virtues, and national defense, but who can take his stands while sounding like neither a moral scold nor an accountant. It need not be somebody whom a majority of voters see as being exactly like them, but it must be someone whose life experiences and outlook seem to voters to be similar enough, or parallel enough, to their own. It’s not so much a matter of economics or ethnicity as it is of aspirations and attitudes. In those respects, for example, the Polish-American factory worker in Michigan may believe he has more in common with the Miami-Cuban Marco Rubio than with, oh, maybe his own governor, Rick Snyder.
(No, this is far from an endorsement of Rubio; it’s just as example.)
It’s not a matter of wealth, but of outlook. The same sort of voters left cold (or at best lukewarm) by Romney were enthusiastic about the even wealthier Perot in 1992. Perot’s cultural cues were different and (until he started babbling about his daughter’s wedding) far more effective.
All of which is enough to let us understand one thing: Without giving evidence of the right cultural attitudes, Republicans can’t win. Yet this shouldn’t be the end of the diagnosis, much less the prescription. The sad reality is that even a candidate who can send the cultural cues to win in 2016 will be fighting cultural trend lines that are pushing the Left’s “automatic” share of the vote up from 46–48 percent, ever closer to 50–plus.
Here’s where Geraghty’s original question re-enters. It isn’t enough merely to be culturally in tune with a narrow majority of today’s voters. If the principles of ordered liberty are going to thrive beyond another presidential term or two, the narrow majority must grow. The cultural trend lines must be reversed. The margin of error must be increased.
And to do that, against the determined efforts of the academic and media elites, will indeed require the single biggest stage (and pulpit) in public life today. That stage and pulpit is the Oval Office. Changing the culture may be a tall order, while also dealing with a world of nukes and terrorists and complicated economics, but to be successful a conservative president must indeed find a way — maybe through gentle persuasion and example rather than direct and fervent preaching — to use the presidency to change the culture.
If he doesn’t, there won’t be much chance for his successors to be conservative.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.