Advertisement

The Square Can Win

The Square Can Win

By David Paul Kuhn - April 26, 2012


In 1972, a young aide named Patrick Buchanan suggested that Richard Nixon frame the presidential campaign as "square America" vs. "radical America." The square won 49 states.

Pundits tend to describe Mitt Romney's vanilla disposition as a liability. The Washington Post recently asked, "Why does Mitt Romney seem so stiff?" But there's a more practical question: How much does it matter?

Stiffs can become president, even in this television age. During the 1988 campaign, George H.W. Bush asked reporters, “What’s wrong with being a boring kind of guy?" The answer came on Election Day. Americans backed the boring guy.

Today, pundits mythologize Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” personality. But Clinton owed his presidency far more to the recession and Ross Perot than his softer side. Barack Obama, the prof-in-chief, does not lead with his heart. Joe Biden is the more Clintonian pol. But Biden was lucky to be number two on that ticket.

Back in 1972, Nixon didn’t merely campaign for “square America.” He was intrinsically square. His second-grade teacher recalled that little Dick Nixon came to school every day wearing a white starched shirt and long sleeves. That square went on to win one of the largest landslides in American history.

So we watch as this latest square seeks the presidency. Romney does navigate a stage as if the hanger is still inside his shirt. But Al Gore won the popular vote despite his starched demeanor.

Romney exudes 1950s man. Ronald Reagan did too. Even Reagan’s pompadour recalled the “good old days.” Romney’s perpetually coiffed hair may as well. In 1996, a Knight-Ridder poll found that Americans -- including a plurality of men, women, liberals and conservatives -- saw the 1950s as the best decade to live and raise children in. Romney’s disposition could evoke this rose-colored memory. He’s more Ward Cleaver than Don Draper.

Reporters favor an anecdote about this stiff man. Romney often recites, or sings, lines of “America the Beautiful” at rallies. These occasions may be awkward. They can also serve as cultural traps. In presidential politics, it’s better to be criticized for effusive patriotism than to be aligned with the critics. H.W. Bush took on a fondness for flags, and their factories, during the 1988 campaign. He doggedly pummeled Michael Dukakis for his veto of a bill mandating the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some reporters scoffed. But it helped keep Dukakis on his heels.

Politicians must run as themselves. The art is to turn weakness into strength. Romney can campaign as a serious man for serious times. Would Romney be a stronger candidate if he were emotive? Yes. That’s also true for the current president.

Every four years, we exaggerate the importance of charisma. Re-election campaigns are largely referendums on the incumbent and the political environment (see Sean Trende’s smart explanation).

The challenger has to meet a competence threshold. Not compassion. The candidate perceived as more caring often loses. Reagan and both Bushes were perceived as less empathetic than their opponents. Republicans won five of those six elections.

1 | 2 | Next Page››

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

Mitt Romney for Mayor
Carl M. Cannon · November 16, 2014
The Incredible Shrinking President
William Murchison · November 18, 2014
Why China Is Cooperating on Climate Change
Steve Chapman · November 16, 2014
Obama's Beijing Surprise
David Ignatius · November 14, 2014

Latest On Twitter