The New York Times has a bizarre fluff article about Paul Ryan’s fashion sense.  This isn’t really my area of expertise–he wears dark suits, like every other male politician–but the article does raise a lot of interesting questions about attractiveness and its relevance to politics.

I think that politicians in general are better looking now than they were before the advent of television and high-quality photographs.  You can’t go around looking like  Martin Van Buren and expect to be President anymore.

Martin Van Buren (Image via Wikipedia.)

Admittedly, not everyone in politics nowadays is pin-up material.  Actually, even people like Ryan, Obama, Palin and all the other supposedly attractive pols are just slightly above-average-looking people.  None of them would turn heads on the street.  But by the standards of the political arena, they look like movie stars.  I suspect this is because to be a major figure in politics, you usually have to be fairly old and spend a lot of time sitting around indoors.  This lifestyle isn’t conducive to getting on People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” list.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two consecutive Republican Vice-Presidential nominees have been relatively young and physically fit people.  They know how much looks matter in politics.  The NYT article referenced above makes it sound like only the Republicans do this, however.  Not true.  Why, the Democrats were perhaps the first beneficiaries of the attractiveness bias, in that it provided JFK the critical edge he needed in a close race against the haggard-looking Richard Nixon.

It’s not the same thing as the “charisma” that I write about so much–both Romney and Ryan are good-looking, but not at all charismatic–but it’s related.  And if you can’t get a charismatic politician to run for your side, getting a nice-looking one is probably the next best thing.

It’s been said that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”.  Well, now it’s coming to be Hollywood for slightly above-average looking people.  Eventually, political strategists will decide the best thing to do is put forth incredibly telegenic puppet candidates, and having the real nitty-gritty work of running the country done behind the scenes by people who look like Karl Rove or James Carville.  Or maybe that’s already going on.

Her dress reminds me of Queen Amidala's in "Star Wars".
“The Crystal Ball” by John William Waterhouse. Via Wikipedia

About four years ago, the conservative site Townhall had a poll you could vote in for who you thought McCain would pick for Vice President.  Well, much like Ross Scott’s Gordon Freeman, if I see buttons I just have to push them, so I voted in the poll.  I picked somebody named Sarah Palin, who I had never even heard of, but I figured “McCain will pick a woman, but not the obvious one that everyone is bandying about, Kay Bailey Hutcheson.”

So, today, I saw that they’re conducting a similar poll for Romney.  For this one, though, they want your email address, no doubt so that they can send you ads, so I’m not going to actually vote.  Also, there are no buttons to push.  Where’s the fun in that?  Anyway, though, I scanned the list and let me officially go on record as picking Governor Susana Martinez.  Once again, I don’t know who she is.  But she is a woman, and she has a Hispanic surname, and Romney needs help with both demographics.

You know that “charisma” stuff I go on about all the time on here?  The quality that is more important than any other to winning elections?

Romney doesn’t have it.

I know, that’s not news.  But it never ceases to amaze me how singularly lacking he is in this quality.

I was listening to a snippet of some speech of his on the radio.  It bored me.  That’s a bad sign for him; if he were a half-way charismatic fellow, he’d have had me outraged.  All the charismatic people on the Republican side can make do that.  But Romney is just dull.

You don’t even have to consider the content of their speeches–and Heaven knows, too many voters probably don’t–to see the difference.  Obama sounds passionate and fired up when he speaks, whereas Romney’s voice sort of cracks whenever he tries to raise his voice to a powerful crescendo.

Sure, tons of people will vote for Romney because they hate Obama.  People are either going to vote for Obama or against him, but nobody is going to vote for Mitt Romney.  He is just hoping that enough people will hate the incumbent to vote him in.  That was the strategy for the last uncharismatic guy from Massachusetts, too.

And now there are rumors that his campaign plans to “avoid John McCain’s mistake”–to wit, make a dull pick, without any charisma, the opposite of Sarah Palin.  This is also a terrible idea, though speaking as one who hopes Romney does not get elected, it pleases me greatly.

I suspect that, in the end, Palin helped McCain’s 2008 campaign.  Yes, you read that right.  It is true that she made a fool of herself in her interviews, but what of that?   The Republican base does not believe anything in the mainstream press, and consequently explained that away as “media bias”.

You say: “but she alienated the moderates”.  No, she didn’t.  The moderates were already alienated, because they were going to vote for Obama no matter what.  No one except a die-hard Republican was going to vote for John McCain, and even they didn’t like him much.  Palin served to energize the only group which would even consider voting for John McCain.  From a purely strategic point of view, she was a good pick.  A rotten candidate, but a good pick.  Curious how that can happen.

Anyway, if the Romney people do decide to double down on dullness, I think it will signify that the people running his campaign are basically counting on a massive economic disaster to make Obama unpopular.  And I suppose that could happen.  Kind of sad, though, if your entire campaign depends on something like that.

John Nance Garner once said the Vice-Presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm spit. “  (Some say he mentioned a different liquid.) Well, clearly Tea-Partiers disagree with him. I already blogged about the possibility of Representative Allen West being Romney’s V.P. and today I saw this NPR story which quotes Tea Partier Bill Miller as saying: “At this point, the only thing [Romney] can possibly do is who he picks for V.P.”

Well, the V.P. slot has been getting more attention lately. Why, there’s even a new HBO series about it. Shows you what John Nance Garner knew.

I assume Romney plans to follow this Miller’s advice, and pick a Vice-President who will excite the base. This is a good plan because it will make appeal more to the Tea-Party crowd without having to hand any actual power to an extreme conservative. Though, as John McCain discovered, this method is not altogether foolproof.

Besides, it’s not that the Vice-President has no power; if the Veep is clever enough, the position can certainly be a powerful one. Dick Cheney practically revolutionized the position, and I suspect that his actions in office has made subsequent Presidential candidates be much more cautious about who they select for the role. But there’s no denying Cheney was one of the most powerful Vice-Presidents ever.

So, the question is: will Romney go for an insider in the mold of Cheney or an exciting figure in the mold of Palin?

Don Lemon of CNN compares Sarah Palin to the character Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady. I’ve heard this comparison made before, and it’s quite an appropriate one, though Lemon does not fully explore it.

After all, Henry Higgins’s idea in My Fair Lady is that Eliza can be made to fit in with the upper class without receiving any education beyond how to talk properly–that is, she needs no education in anything other than sounding educated.

The Higgins view is, I fear, also true of Palin. She doesn’t need to actually learn anything more about economics or foreign policy to be accepted by the mainstream press; she only needs to learn to sound like it.

A professor named Allan Lichtman has a model for predicting elections that indicates Obama will win re-election. According to that article, his model has been right about every election since 1984.

I agree with most of what his model says, but I take issue with his assessment of point #12 of his model “Incumbent charisma”. He says:

“‘I did not give President Obama the incumbent charisma key. I counted it against him. He’s really led from behind. He didn’t really take the lead in the healthcare debate, he didn’t use his speaking ability to move the American people during the recession. He’s lost his ability to connect since the 2008 election.'”

I disagree with the idea that Obama didn’t “take the lead”. He did give speeches on all of those issues, after all. He’s not the King, as both Liberals and Conservatives sometimes seem to think; he still has to deal with Congress. These are vague complaints, which I think reflect wishful thinking on Prof. Lichtman’s part.

Also, Obama after 2008 was dangerously close to becoming overexposed. If he’d kept showing up everywhere to talk about issues, people would be sick of him. Obama has wisely conserved his charismatic abilities so as to be able to use them for his campaign.

Bottom line, though, I agree with this appraisal. The one other caveat, as I see it, is on point #13 “Challenger charisma”. Palin has some charisma, so if she decided to run it would change things, but it’s hard to know what she’s doing. And I still think Obama would win.

(Hat Tip to Megan McArdle)

From a Newsweek article about Sarah Palin:

“This derives partly, of course, from her standing as a possible presidential candidate with presumed frontrunner potential, a status she seems inclined to maintain for as long as possible.” [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not. It may be, or it may not be, but it’s potentially possible either way.

Joshua Green at The Atlantic has a piece on the “Tragedy of Sarah Palin”, which you can read here. In essence, his point seems to be she was willing to work with Democrats when she was Governor of Alaska, and yet now, and ever since her debut at the Republican convention, she has seemed uncompromisingly conservative. Green thinks this change was very bad for her political career.

Read the article for yourself, but my opinion is that there never was a change; Sarah Palin talked like an anti-elitist populist when she ran for governor, and she talked like an anti-elitist populist when she spoke at the Republican convention. What changed was that earlier her populism was directed at multinational businesses and greedy politicians who sold out to them. When she reached the national stage, she directed it towards the intellectuals.

This is just pure… Palin. There’s no other way to describe it.

I wonder how taking away collective bargaining rights from the unions helps the unions… was that not what she asserted?

My “favorite” part of her speech:

“I say personally to our President, hey parent to parent, Barack Obama, for shame for you to suggest that the heart of the common-sense conservative movement would do anything to harm our esteemed elders, to harm our children with down syndrome, to harm those who are most in need. No, see in our book, you prioritize appropriately and those who need the help will get the help.” [Emphasis mine.]

This is hard for me to follow, but she seems to be saying the Republicans will prioritize about who will get help… I wonder, would they use a “panel”, of some kind, to determine who gets what? And it would be “to each according to his need“, apparently…

Is that how you read it?

(Or ought I to have called this post: “So please you, Sir, we much regret/If we have failed in etiquette“?).

In any event, to briefly sum the case, the facts are these: on January 28th, James Taranto, writing in the WSJ, quoted a letter from a person named Rory Page, complaining about a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which read in part:

“I must call you on something that was inserted into the play which I am almost positive was not in the original book… The comments made in such a cavalier and oh-so-humorous way were uncalled for. Now, I realize you play to a mostly liberal audience in Missoula and so, I am sure, felt comfortable in your calling for the beheading of Sarah Palin. I am painfully aware that most in the audience tittered with laughter and clapped because ‘no one would miss her’ but there were some in your audience who took great offense to this “uncivil tone” about another human being.”

The news of this performance has drawn the ire of the website Conservatives4Palin. They cite this issue as an example of “left-wing” violent rhetoric against Mrs. Palin, which would indicate hypocrisy among left-wingers who have complained about Mrs. Palin’s use of violent rhetoric.

These are the known facts at present. From here, I shall speculate a bit.

I did not attend the performance in question. Indeed, I’d never heard of the people who performed it  until reading of this incident. Also, I have not been able to find a transcription of the lyric in question. However, based on Page’s quoting the line “no one would miss her”, I suspect it was in Ko-Ko’s famous “little list” song.

If that is in fact the case, the grounds for outrage are decidedly shaky. For it’s a tradition that dates back to Gilbert himself to alter the lyrics in that song. According to Ian Bradley’s The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, Gilbert substituted “the critic dramatist”, “the scorching motorist” and others. Likewise, it is also a tradition to reference various politicians in the last verse–since none are alluded to by name, the performer may mimic their mannerisms to convey who “would not be missed”.

Cheer up, though, Conservatives! On page 574, Ian Bradley’s book also quotes these lyrics that Gilbert added in 1908, in which he beats Ayn Rand to the punch by about a half-century:

“All those who hold that publicans it’s virtuous to fleece, 
And impose a heavy war tax in these piping times of peace 
And preach the code that moralists like Robin Hood held true,
That to benefit the pauper you must rob the well-to-do,
That peculiar variety of sham philanthropist,
   I don’t think he’d be missed–I’m sure he’d not be missed!”

UPDATE: While researching this further, I came across a website called “Ethics Alarms”, which contains much more information and commentary about this matter, including the offending lyric. It’s an excellent site, and makes many of the same points I made above, only better written.