By Elvin Lim
In 2010, the Tea Party movement was out and about. Newly christened and newly outraged, they created the enthusiasm gap that creates victories in an age of evenly split bipolarized politics.
This year, the rage has sizzled out to disgruntled listlessness. Even for those still against Obamacare, the memory of its passage has waned because the promised effects of its eventual implementation will not become evident for a few more years, and the debate about the national debt is either too real (in Medicare) or too esoteric (as in the debt ceiling) for easy populist manipulation.
If Republicans are still waiting for a political novice from a midwestern town to emerge out of nowhere and take the country by storm (i.e. their Obama), then they better wait for the next cycle, because their most talented candidates have already opted to do so. The smart candidates, if they can afford the time, are polishing their CVs for 2016, because they know that whoever it is, incumbent presidents are just hard to beat; plus, they happen to be facing an incumbent president who appears as adept at filling his war-chest as he is at delivering campaign sonnets.
Trump was a fun fantasy, as was Huckabee, and as remains Herman Cain. So many tantalizing options, some sparks of celebrity, and yet no magic, no candidate with the star quality — the je na sais quoi of our era of infotainment politics. It’s not that there is no talent on the Republican side, but that the talented have wisely chosen to withhold their talent for a better shot in the future.
And so all we have on the Republican side right now is the same old. The front-runner, as far as any is visible, is a stiff millionaire with Wall Street credentials with the slick hair to match his slick politics. He was for health-care in Massachusetts before he was against it in Washington. But he does raise a lot of money, so at least he satisfies the bare minimum requirement for what it takes to take on Obama. And that’s it. For all the Right’s talk that Obama is just about the worst president that has ever befallen American (so terrible he’s even been deemed, literally, unAmerican), there is a gaping lacuna in their search for an alternative.
In the era of the permanent campaign, when all elected politicians are already campaigning for their next appearance at the poll, now is rather late in the game that we are not already speculating about the most viable candidates. Granted, the speculations are often wrong, but the point is early speculation is a sign of enthusiasm that helps create a victorious wave for whoever the nominee is later on. The last time there was an incumbent president on the ballot, the Democrats were going gaga over Howard Dean at this time in that cycle. We are well past this point for the 2012 cycle, and yet the Republican Tea Partiers are only just getting over Donald Trump’s flirtatious clownery. Whereas by 2006, the lame-duck George Bush was already being eclipsed by the media’s extended foreplay with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, most eyes remain on the same two characters, even if some are cast in contempt. There still isn’t a newsmaking, paparazzi-feeding figure on the Republican side who also looks credible enough to party apparatchiks. (Sarah Palin fails on the latter criterion), in part because no candidate on the Right has yet mastered the fine art of credible populism — as close as one can come to giving the je na sais quoi of presidential star quality a name in the era of plebiscitary and anti-intellectual politics. The existing range of candidates are sub-par because they are either too stiff or too silly.
All populists are, to some extent, sweet-talking thespians. It cannot be otherwise, because democracy makes the voter sovereign, and sovereigns love flattery. But while it takes a populist to win, it takes a populist with a head on her shoulders to govern, and thank goodness our electoral system is still able to weed insanity out. The situation with the Republican field today is that there are populists, and there are clowns (who until recently were still stoking the “birther” issue for a day in the political sun). But the serious candidates — those with the talent to both gaggle and govern — have for now, chosen to wait this one out.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.