May 12, 2009 in Opinion

Popularity trumps big ideas

Jonah Goldberg
 
Tags:column

We conservatives are having one of our grand, knock-down, drag-out fights over the future of conservatism and the GOP. Should conservatives compromise on gay marriage or abortion rights? Should we jump on the environmental bandwagon? Are there ways to reform health care without abandoning our principles? What would Reagan do? What would William F. Buckley think? Would the Founding Fathers cry like that American Indian in the old anti-litter commercial?

Frankly, I love these arguments. I think they are healthy and good for conservatism and the country. One of the things I love about conservatives is that we have these internal debates more often than the Five Families went to war in “The Godfather.”

The mainstream perception that conservatives are closed-minded and dogmatic while liberals are open-minded and free-thinking has it almost exactly backward. Liberal dogma is settled: The government should do good, where it can, whenever it can. That is President Barack Obama’s idea of pragmatism and bipartisanship: He’s open to all ideas, from either side of the aisle, about how best to expand government and get the state more involved in our lives. Meanwhile, conservatism’s dogma remains forever in flux. We constantly debate the trade-offs between freedom and virtue, the conflicts between liberty and order.

See, I can’t stop myself from getting into this stuff.

But here’s the thing. One of the most important, yet most frequently violated, laws of punditry is that your own priorities and preferences aren’t always relevant. I would love it if the GOP dedicated itself to cutting government by two-thirds, leaving only a minimal social safety net, a big honking military and a few other bells and whistles for promoting the general welfare. My ideal ticket in 2008 would have been Cheney-Gramm. That’s right, Dick Cheney and Phil Gramm: two old white guys who would crush our enemies and liberate our economy while shouting, “You kids get off my lawn!” at the filthy hippies who would inevitably accumulate outside the White House like so much bathroom fungus.

But you know what? It’s not about what I want. Gone are the days when a great but uncharismatic president like Calvin Coolidge could get elected because he promised to do as little as possible. (“Perhaps,” he observed, “one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”) My ideal platform may be right. (If I didn’t think it was, it wouldn’t be my ideal platform, now would it?) But it is surely not popular.

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.

Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online. His e-mail address is JonahsColumn@aol.com.

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