Modernizing Conservativism

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By Nick DAngelo

Last month, Time magazine released their 100 Most Influential People of 2013. Among them is the 50-year-old Republican titan of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Honored with the title of “Defender of the Jersey Shore,” the governor’s tribute was written by a fourth grader who was personally touched by Christie’s leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “He cried,” the nine-year-old wrote, speaking of Christie’s visit to her community, “The governor’s friends high-fived me and said nobody makes the governor cry.”

The striking image of a political leader overcome by grief for those he has sworn to serve is the humanization the Republican Party has been desperately grasping for. At a time when the party is seen as outdated, stony, cold and heartless, a little compassion goes a long way. We’ll even settle for a little feeling. In 2008, Senator John McCain was ancient, cranky and of an entirely different generation. Four years later, Mitt Romney was as numb and plastic as one could become. The “old-white-guy” stereotype that has plagued the Republican Party for decades is simply reinforced by the imaging that plays such a prominent role in any modern presidential campaign. Policies can only go as far as those who shepherd them.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran as a staunch-conservative in the Republican primaries against George H.W. Bush. Tough economics coupled with a tough military. It was the stoniness that typically paints extremism. After all, 16 years earlier as Reagan entered the national political scene, Barry Goldwater was labeled with similar accusations of “extremism” because of his harsh straight-talk.

Perhaps recognizing that Goldwater’s embrace of the extremist label cost him all but six states, Reagan pivoted after becoming his party’s nominee. The policies and stances would be the same, but the rhetoric would become far more gentle. During the presidential debates, Reagan succeeded in softening his image, opening up what would become an election landslide. He focused on his family values, his simple cowboy-persona and his personal history to create an American narrative that seemed to personify the ideal “exceptionalism,” which he championed.

Of course, Reagan was hardly any of those things. His family remained largely broken, with his daughter, Patty, openly despising her father. He was a Hollywood actor, not a Midwestern hero. And his past was marred with failures and difficulty. On the other hand, his successor, George H.W. Bush, was truly all the trophies in the Reagan narrative. Bush had married his high school sweetheart, raised five children, was the youngest pilot in World War II and was a successful businessman known for his diligence and hard work. But it was Reagan, not Bush, who would live on as the carrier of the conservative narrative.

The problem? Bush was too plastic, too stony and too numb. Too much a caricature of the New Haven country club that he was from. He was unable to relate, and often displayed just how out-of-touch he was with the American psyche. During the National Grocer’s Association convention in 1992, Bush was chided by the New York Times for being “amazed” by the technology of modern grocery stores. The president, according to the story, was so disconnected from ordinary life that he had never seen a checkout scanner before. While the story has since proven to be grossly fabricated, the damage was done. Perception is reality, and it is the Bush problem that Republicans face again.

For decades Republicans have struggled to show compassion in politicking. Associated with policies that seem too cold too often, a little extra effort sometimes must be made to appear personal. This isn’t about the issues, but simply the image. Who knows if Christie will be that compassionate savior in the 2016 presidential election? What is safe to say though, is that Christie understands the power of personality, and, more importantly, translating that created image into votes.

 

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