One of the things that hindered Thomas E. Dewey in his quest for the presidency in the 1940s was his weak demeanor that Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously described a being like “the little man on the wedding cake,” although a less well-known dismissal by former President Herbert Hoover is more cutting: “A man couldn’t wear a mustache like that without having it affect his mind.” Dewey’s real problems were more substantive: he had little to say, and represented the Eastern Establishment of the Republican Party in the worst of it’s “me, too” phase. The Republican Congress of 1947-48 did yeoman work battling against Harry Truman and the worst excesses of the New Deal, not without some real accomplishments such as the Taft-Hartley Act. As such the 1948 campaign could have been set up much like the 2012 campaign is arguably being set up by the Ryan/House Republican confrontation with Obama. In other words, the 1948 election deserved a more robust Republican than someone whose message the Louisville Courier-Journal characterized in one of the most brutally effective editorial putdowns ever:
“No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
You might say that Dewey combined the two worst attributes of Establishment Republicanism of his time: he was not only a “me, too” candidate, he was “meek, too.”
The lesson of Dewey comes to mind in pondering the two GOP candidates whose names end in Y. Today I’ll just look at Pawlenty, and have something to say about Romney later. Pawlenty has done a creditable job taking some bright line positions that mark him out as a bold and potentially effective leader, such as criticizing ethanol subsidies in Iowa, entitlements in Florida, and calling for the extraordinary target of a 5 percent growth rate. (I predict, by the way, that Pawlenty’s ethanol position will become the default position of any serious Republican candidate before this next election cycle is over.) No one will confuse Pawlenty with Deweyite limpness on policy matters, or without clear contrast to Obama. The knock on Pawlenty, instead, is that he lacks charisma or “presence,” which has been a crucial factor in presidential politics at least since JFK. And he probably shouldn’t have passed on the opportunity to hammer Romney harder in the debate on Monday night (I agree with the commenter on Scott’s previous post that Pawlenty made a tactical mistake here), though it can be argued that it might be better to withhold attacking Romney harder until later down the road when more voters are paying attention, and after Romney has dug himself in even deeper on Obomneycare and other issues.
On the other hand, Pawlenty’s mild bearing may have something going for him, and I can envision him gaining strength against Obama as November 2012 nears. I have one simple theory about the presidency that I think can usually explain election outcomes. It’s a variation of the “temperament” or likeability question, usually put in this form: “Which one of these guys would you want to have a beer with?” George H.W. Bush or Michael Dukakis? George W. Bush or Al Gore? Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter? Pawlenty or Obama? (Let’s ask that Cambridge cop how much fun it is sharing a beer with Obama and Biden.)
My more serious version goes something like this: the trick to the presidency is understanding that while Americans want a president they can look up to, they do not want to feel that the president is looking back down on them. In other words, we like to put our presidents up on a pedestal, but then wish to gaze upon them at eye level. This befits a democratic republic, but is hard to pull off. The presidents who can pull this off–FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush–tend to get elected and re-elected. Presidential candidates who come off as “better-than-you” elitists usually don’t win or get re-elected. Dukakis was rightly called an “eat your vegetables” candidate, and Mark Steyn’s apt comment that Gore was the first person to win the popular vote without being popular raises the point that Gore should have won the 2000 election handily. (And do we even need to bother explaining John Kerry?) I think you can run this filter all the way back to Eisenhower versus Stevenson.
Some of you should be asking, “What about Obama? If he’s not an elitist looking down on the American people, then no one is.” I think Obama’s ability to overcome his elitist bearing can be attributed to the exotic factor of his mixed race and the “hope and change” phenomenon of 2008. Any white liberal who had made the “bitter clingers” remark, and carried himself with Obama’s haughtiness, would have been a goner. But I think it is possible that the hope and change magic will have completely worn off by next year, and if you like the theory, as I do, that when voters are unhappy with the incumbent president, as we were in 2008 with George W. Bush, they like to choose not simply the other party but the person who is most opposite in temperament. In that kind of dynamic Pawlenty might match up very well with Obama.
But first, as Scott’s commenter noted, he will have to get by Bachmann as well as Romney. The media meme right now that the GOP field is “lackluster” is wrong in my view. While each candidate may have weaknesses, this nomination campaign looks to me to be the most interesting and significant since 1952 or 1912.