goofus-and-gallant

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump.  I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.

My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.

This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.  Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms.  By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”.  He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.

This was part of Nixon’s plan.  It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968.  It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.

When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump.  He’d become a laughingstock.

Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.

I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.

Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power.  But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.

The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it.  The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.

 

In the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, the mysterious and manipulative character Kreia says when asked about her past: “What do you wish to hear… That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy?”

I find I am reminded of this quote whenever I think of the late President Richard Nixon. If you ask me who my favorite President is, I don’t know the answer.  Lincoln, Adams, Grant, Eisenhower and Truman are among those I’d consider.  But if you ask me who the most interesting President is, I would unhesitatingly say “Nixon”.  He is a complex figure, difficult to categorize.  He is not a hero, but not completely a villain.

If some of my fellow liberals are shocked by my attitude, consider that Noam Chomsky called him “the last liberal President”.  Or that George McGovern, who lost to Nixon the 1972 election, said “With the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history.”

You know the so-called “Obamacare” law so much in the news? The one that many a Tea-Partier has called “socialist” and “Marxist” and so on?  Well, Nixon advocated a very similar plan.  Yes, Tea-Partiers, you are in the position of arguing for the prosecution of Richard Nixon as a communist.  That would be tough, because Richard Nixon got his big break arguing for the prosecution of other people as communists.  See what I mean about him being complicated?

Let us deal with the elephant in the room right now: Nixon’s racist and sexist views.  There is no denying it; he held views which to the modern liberal are absolutely horrifying, and would not be allowed in mainstream society.  He was a racist, sexist, anti-semitic jerk, but you know what else? The Nixon administration was far more liberal on Civil Rights than people may remember. Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment that was later to be thwarted by conservative Phyllis Schlafly.

When I read about Nixon it seems, as others have said, like there were two different Nixons.  There was the moderate, in some ways even progressive and liberal President Nixon, and then there was the nationalistic, pessimistic, racist, cruel and divisive Candidate Nixon who campaigned on racial divisions and demonized his opponents as radical decadents bent on destroying America.

I think this is what makes him so fascinating: he was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of a character; which made him dramatically interesting.  If you wanted to make a dark, psychological drama about a President, well… “Nixon’s the One”.

As I’ve written before, the campaigner Nixon undid the New Deal coalition and realigned the voting blocs in a way that persists to this day.  As Rick Perlstein wrote in his brilliant Nixonland: “How does Nixonland end?  It has not ended yet.”

Yet, many of his policies were liberal by today’s standard.  And his personal story is remarkable.  He clawed his way up from being dirt poor.  The last Republican candidate could no more relate to the type of hardship he endured in his youth than he could consider saying he is a Keynesian.

Nixon was never personally popular, and I don’t think he really wanted to be.  He knew it would get votes, so he sort of tried, but he didn’t viscerally want it the way many politicians do.

People in general either hated Nixon or liked his policies.  He was not an intrinsically likeable man. That said, there were some people who were amazingly loyal to him, like Rose Mary Woods and maybe his hagiographer, Monica Crowley. (Read Crowley’s writings about Nixon, and then read Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary for him and you will get nothing like an accurate portrait of the man, but you will discover levels of polarization you didn’t know existed.)

There’s been a lot of writing about Nixon one the occasion of his centennial earlier this week.  It’s not at all like the adulation given President Reagan when his came two years ago.  But in the end, I think Nixon was a far more significant figure.  Whether for good or ill I don’t quite know.

But let me give Nixon himself the last word. From his 1974 Farewell address:

We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.

Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

And so I say to you on this occasion, as we leave, we leave proud of the people who have stood by us and worked for us and served this country.

We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

Dick Cheney is one of the few politicians who appears to really not care what people think of him. While some accuse other politicians of doing “whatever it takes to get elected,” Cheney has shown a complete lack of interest in polls. He certainly has never made any attempt to be beloved or popular. He barely even uses rhetoric, preferring to growl his statements with barely concealed hostility. He looks like a hunched over little man, with a sideways smirk perpetually plastered on his face.

In other words, Cheney is not charismatic. He is, in fact, anti-charismatic. But, unlike Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Martha Coakley, Dick Cheney knows he is anti-charismatic, and he has embraced it. He’s made it part of his image, to be the guy who doesn’t want to lead huge crowds, who doesn’t make big speeches, who prefers to be a lone, tough old bastard. He has worked his anti-charisma to its fullest, and has probably come further in understanding the nature of this phenomenon than any other anti-charismatic individual save Nixon. And Nixon’s success was, I think, more good luck than recognition of his own anti-charisma. 

The worst thing you can do if you’re an anti-charismatic person is try to something exciting and awesome and sexy like charismatic people are always doing. Hillary Clinton tries to make grand speeches and gestures like Obama does, and it comes across as irritating. Dick Cheney never attempts soaring rhetoric, and it’s a good idea.

Make no mistake; even when you embrace anti-charisma, it’s still no way to stop a true charismatic person in an election. Barack Obama (or Sarah Palin) would utterly defeat Cheney in a political campaign. But what embracing his anti-charismatic nature does for Cheney is grant him a remarkable confidence. Whereas Mrs. Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Martha Coakley and even, to an extent, Nixon, were always making “gaffes” or being “boring” for reasons they could never figure out, Cheney seems to understand that he is never going to be personally appealing, and has simply said “To hell with this; I’ll be as unlikable as I can, and say what I want.” 

Kathleen Parker asks: “Who is likely to be the first female president of the United States?”

Well, at the moment, the most likely is Sarah Palin. But, as Parker observes, even this is not likely. And the answer to this question, naturally, goes back to the Great Male-Female Charisma Gap. Palin has some charisma, but I doubt if it’ll be enough to win a general election. And there are, it seems, precious few women who possess the charisma that is needed to win. Poor Mrs. Clinton had Nixon-esque anti-charisma. 

I’ll say this, though. I think charisma is-at least partially-a genetic trait. So, I figure the most likely candidate for first female President is probably Malia Obama.

Over at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism, Alicia Colon wonders if George W. Bush is the most reviled President ever.  She says she hasn’t done enough research yet. I can help her there.

No, he isn’t. Neither is Lincoln, as she speculates. It’s Richard M. Nixon. 

Why, you ask? Because he’s almost the picture in the dictionary next to anti-charisma.

I define anti-charisma as a phenomenon that causes the unlucky bearer to inspire an instinctively hostile reaction in others. If an anti-charismatic person says “Yes we can!”, the response is “You’re not the boss of me.”
Anti-charisma doesn’t seem to be as well analyzed as charisma, but here is my unscientific list of  a few prominent people who I believe have it.

  • Dick Cheney
  • Richard Nixon
  • Bill Belichick 
  • John Kerry
  • Al Gore

Most of them are politicians–Kerry and Gore largely unsuccessful ones, Cheney only successful by joining with a charismatic running mate, Nixon by avoiding debates with other candidates. Belichick, despite being the best active NFL coach, inspires none of the admiration in the national media or fans in general that is expressed for lesser coaches.
The reason I bring this up is because Martha Coakely looks destined to join them on this list. One of the hallmarks, in my opinion, of anti-charisma is that mistakes the anti-charismatic person makes tend to have greater impact than they really warrant, and Coakley is no exception. Whereas Obama could be forgiven for saying he’d been in 57 states, Coakley is mocked far more aggressively for a campaign ad in which “Massachusetts” was misspelled.
Then there are personal factors such as appearance and voice. This ad is a textbook example of a charismatic voice vs. an anti-charismatic one. And Nixon provided a legendary illustration  of what a difference looks make.
To be continued…