The Stakes

Like John, I am not much of a fan of Peggy Noonan for various reasons, but also like John, I note that sometimes she hits it out of the park.  Noonan’s column today is one of those (except for its closing quasi-endorsement of Condi Rice for running mate—I dissent sharply on this: see my former colleague Michael Rubin’s very candid assessment over at  Noonan notes the that this election is one of those high-stakes elections like 1932 and (ahem) 1980:

It is a crisis election like 1932 or 1980, with the American people knowing we’re at a turning point and knowing that who we pick now really matters. But crisis elections tend to bring drama—a broad sense of excitement and passion. We’re not seeing that this year. We’re not seeing passionate proclamations from supporters of one candidate or the other that their guy is just right for the moment, their guy is the answer. I’m speaking of the excitement of deep belief: “FDR will save the day.” “Reagan will turn it around.”

This brings me to Romney, and the contours of the present crisis, which reminds me also to point once again to Jim Piereson’s essay, “The Fourth Revolution,” describing our moment in even more capacious terms than Noonan.   Some months ago here I offered a long post wondering whether Romney matched up well against the current crisis, citing something Whittaker Chambers had written about Richard Nixon in the spring of 1960:

If he were a great, vital man, bursting with energy, ideas (however malapropos), sweeping grasp of the crisis, and (even) intolerant convictions, I think I should have felt: Yes, he must have it, he must enact his fate, and ours.  I did not have this feeling. . .  So I came away with unhappiness for him, for all.  Of course, no such man as I have suggested now exists?  Apparently not.  Mr. Nixon may do wonders; he may astonish us (and himself), a new stupor mundi.  Then I shall have proved the man who, privileged to see the future up close, was purblind.  I hope so. . .  In short: I believe he is the best there is; I am not sure that is enough, the odds being so great.

About what is needed now, Noonan writes in the same mood:

Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he’ll give it to you straight, in part because his views seem commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he’s direct and doesn’t hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.

Is Romney the person to do this?  Here’s one hugely important strategic difference between the 1980 election and this one: by 1980, most people, including even the smartest and most honest liberals, recognized that the economic crisis of the time was largely the result of government failure.  Hence, that long-time critic of government—Ronaldus Magnus—was the ideal candidate.  Today, much of the public believes that the economic crisis of our time is the result of market failure, and this includes much of the right and the Tea Party—witness the bipartisan anger at bank bailouts, “crony capitalism,” etc.  In such a moment, is it really Romney’s best card to say that what differentiates him from Obama is that “I have private sector experience”??  That is asking for the Swift-boat style attacks on Bain Capital.  A lot of swing voters will conclude that Romney is part of the problem, not the solution like Reagan was in 1980.  This is Romney leading with his well-chiseled chin.

To be sure, we know that much of what the public perceives as market failure in the housing bubble and financial crisis was at root government failure just as much as the stagflation of the late 1970s, but so far Romney hasn’t figured out a way to explain this in a compelling way to the voters.  I admit it is not an easy thing to do in retail politics.  But it is essential, not only to winning the election, but for governing after if he can contrive to win it.  One reason Reagan was successful in his first year in office was that he had campaigned so clearly and for so long on the issues that his governing philosophy and program were well known when he entered the White House.   Noonan puts the problem just right:

Both candidates seem largely impenetrable—it’s hard to know them, figure them. With Mr. Romney, you have a sense of what he’s been, what jobs he’s held, and his general approach. But do you have a solid sense of who he’d be and what he’d do as president? Probably not. Even he may not know.

Let me double down on Noonan’s public memo to Romney and his campaign: there’s a Reagan-style landslide sitting on the table for you if you can figure out how to step up and grab it.


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