Hey, Jeb, Ted, Rand, Marco, Bobby, Chris and the dozen or more others I’m forgetting, here’s something to write on your bathroom mirror in 2015 and beyond: The “P” in POTUS stands for “President,” not “Pundit.”
I understand that the Seinfeldian faux-holiday Festivus is behind us, but I want to get at least this one grievance in for next year a bit early. Republicans have a tendency to tell, not show. They feel the need to explain why they are saying something, rather than work at simply saying what they need to say convincingly. I call it “reading your stage direction.”
President George H.W. Bush was probably the worst sufferer of this political malady. The most famous example was when he was running against Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton was probably the best faker of sincerity in modern American politics. Sticking with the Seinfeld theme, he followed George Costanza’s dictum, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Clinton could convince himself that whatever he was saying was the truth, and that helped him sell himself as the Great Empathizer.
Poor President Bush, a deeply humane man, surely cared as much as Clinton about the plight of the voters, but he came from more buttoned-up (and zipped up) patrician stock. And so sometimes he had to tell voters what Clinton could show with a bit lip and teary eye.
So in Exeter, N.H., Bush literally read his stage direction off a cue card, like Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman,” proclaiming “Message: I care.” I always wondered if, afterward, some aide had to tell him, “Sir, you were supposed to convey that message, not literally read it out loud.”
My favorite example came a year earlier, when former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke won a Louisiana primary. Bush came out and issued a statement in which he said “We have — I want to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke because of the racism and because of the very recent statements that are very troubling in terms of bigotry and all of this.”
Rather than express his no doubt sincere disgust for David Duke, he talked about how he wanted to be “positioned.”
Bob Dole told an audience “If that’s what you want, I’ll be another Ronald Reagan.” His campaign strategy in 1996 was to “act presidential.”
The low point of Mitt Romney’s campaign was when he put on his analyst’s hat and told an audience that 47 percent of the voters were simply a write-off because they were, in effect, moochers.
And it’s not just the candidates. The GOP is infested with anonymous flacks and hacks who get a buzz from talking strategy with the New York Times. They admit they might have to “play the race card” or “go negative.”
I don’t even know what the race card means any more, but if you’re going to play it, play it. I’ve never met a poker player who said, “I’m going for an inside straight.”
And if you’re going to go negative, by all means go negative. Don’t telegraph to all the world, “This is just a cynical gambit we don’t really believe.”
Outrage is so much more believable if you don’t wink to the audience in advance. Don’t worry, plenty of voters, never mind pundits, will catch your phony outrage without the advanced warning.
The same goes for optimism. If you want to be the next Ronald Reagan, be the next Ronald Reagan. Don’t tell people, “Starring in the role of Ronald Reagan tonight will be ...” Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or whoever’s turn it is at the podium.
I’ve heard nearly every 2016 wannabe tell conservative audiences about the importance of optimism. Jeb Bush is particularly high on it these days. He says the nominee must be “joyful.” I agree. But stop telling me about the need for joyfulness and start showing me some frickin’ joy!
One of the main reasons Republicans read their stage direction, I think, is that they see politics as a game. And, as a game, they don’t take it as seriously as those who see politics as an obsession or even a religion.
This speaks well of them as human beings because it suggests that, unlike a lot of liberal Democrats, they don’t think politics — and by extension government — is everything and all-important. That’s a trait I want in a president. But it’s a real problem in a presidential candidate.
So please, more show, less tell.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a columnist for Tribune Media.