Let The Narrative Define The Candidate

Very quickly, the flagship Ricochet podcast has joined my favorite weekly listening.  A couple of weeks ago, Pat Caddell was the guest, and as usual, the pragmatic, tell-it-like-he-sees it Democrat pollster was a font of helpful advice for Republicans, all of which is worth listening to.  This particular bit stuck out: he suggested that the Republicans need to settle on a narrative first, and then the proper candidate will rise to the narrative.  It’s an interesting thought, and one worth considering.

His strategic advice is predicated on the notion – facts, really – that time is shorter than we think, and that the narrative for the election will be set this year, not next.  I think he’s probably right on this.  People’s opinions on Obama – and presidential re-elections are always first about the incumbent – are already being cemented, and the cement is starting to cure.  You see it in the “who do you trust more on X issue?” polling, on the right-track/wrong-track question, on a general atmosphere of incompetence and disconnect.

The Dems and the MSM (but I repeat myself) will try their hardest to shape the narrative this year to their advantage.  You see this in the stepped-up union activity, the attempt to frame the budget fight.  How both Wisconsin and the debt ceiling/budget fight play out, along with the continuing court battles over Obamacare (are you listening, Rep Stephens?) will be major factors in how these impressions solidify.  The specific issues, and the framing of those issues as “budget-cutting” vs. “growth-enhancing,” as an example, will also make a huge difference.  And even if we don’t know what particular economic or foreign policy details will be on people’s minds in 2012, the right narrative can absorb a wide variety of specifics and surprises.

By deciding on the narrative first, we determine the basis on which we’ll fight the election, we set out priorities and a vision of what’s right and wrong for the country, and where we want to lead it and see it led.

The candidate chosen should then be the candidate who can most effectively advocate for than narrative, embody the hopes that it defines, and (one hopes) govern the country with the mandate that it produces.  Our first instinct as early-candidate-adopters is often to ask, “what’s important in a candidate?”  That skips a step.  We won’t know what’s important until we know what vision we want to project.

This also argues for as many candidates as possible to jump into the pool, and against writing people off too soon.  It doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to have favorites or candidate we absolutely won’t vote for; it just means that we should be saying, “I won’t vote X,” rather than “X shouldn’t run.”  I’m happy Gary Johnson is running, for instance.  It’ll give a practical politician with libertarian leanings a chance to make that case, which is something Tea Party activists should welcome.  Likewise, nobody should be afraid of a Sarah Palin candidacy; I could see her pushing the debate in a constructive direction while getting nowhere close to the nomination.  The Donald?  Sure, let him do damage to Obama while discrediting himself.

It also means that a candidate’s supporters will try to influence the narrative to look most like the one that best fits him.  That’s fine; it’s also part of the process, and you can sort of discount for that as well.  Where it’s dangerous is if Congressional leadership tries to manipulate the legislative agenda to benefit one candidate over another.  I’d be sorely disappointed if Boehner, for example, ran away from Obamacare as an issue because he was afraid it would hurt Romney, for instance.  (I use this merely as an example; I have no idea if Boehner is closer to one camp or another.)

One of the other benefits of defining a narrative before picking a platform is that you can work towards consensus on potentially internally divisive issues without driving people up the wall or out of the camp.

So what’s the right narrative?  Well, it’s not a platform, it’s an overarching set of themes that seek to inspire, that reflect how we want to see ourselves, and that can be connected to a practical, achievable political program that directly affects people’s lives.  Doom and gloom is not a winning narrative.  Each of these should show where Obama has failed, and where we can do better.  In no particular order, I’d suggest:

  • Growth: Taxes, regulation, inflation, and over-spending are killing jobs, stifling growth, and punishing the middle class.
  • Freedom & Liberty: You’re better off making your own choices, not having them made for you; trying to make those decisions for you has led us to a fiscal cliff
  • Competence: Elect someone who actually has experience governing, not a thin-skinned political hack
  • Respect abroad: This will begin with sound money, but it will also mean acting on interests, not impulses; it will be mean being a good ally and a dangerous enemy, not the reverse

But then, what do I know?

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