Why Tone in American Politics Matters

Published August 9, 2013

Commentary Magazine

Michael Medved is a very intelligent and sober conservative commentator, and earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

He quotes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who last month said this: “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges. Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

Medved shows why this claim is false, citing (among others) Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (who faced more conservative challengers in the primary). He also points out that George W. Bush, while conservative by any reasonable definition, ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” winning an election in which the environment favored Democrats. Of course, Medved points out, moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. “Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern,” he writes. “They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), ‘compassionate conservative’ (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).”

Mr. Medved is quite right. Americans aren’t a particularly ideological people. And candidate quality and likeability are huge factors in presidential elections. Arguably the candidate deemed by the public to be the most likeable has won in every election since 1972, with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Even Jimmy Carter was fairly likeable in 1976, when his pettiness and bitterness were not so apparent.)

Some on the right seem to think that the key to victory is for the GOP candidate to be angrier, to sound tougher, to be more confrontational. As one GOP voter put it at a recent town hall meeting with his representative, Andy Harris, House Speaker John Boehner needs to start “defying” Obama and threatening him with impeachment if he doesn’t “start obeying the laws!” As this constituent put it, “Listen, we’re dying out here because you guys are being nice guys!” He added, “We’re losing the country! I want to see more defiance!”

The willingness to fight for a cause is often an admirable thing, and many of us were drawn to politics in large part because of a desire to advance a set of convictions. That effort elicits opposition, which in turn leads to clashes. That is the nature of politics in a republic and something that can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided. Politics ain’t beanbag.

But in choosing to fight, one needs to pick the most favorable terrain possible–and even then (and whenever possible) to wage battles with affability, a touch of grace, and in a manner that projects steadiness and reasonableness. Winsomeness, equanimity, and a moderate temperament (which is different than moderate policies) are what most voters are looking for in candidates–especially from people who have strong philosophical convictions. It’s a mistake to assume that in order to be principled one has to be alienating and agitated.

In 1990 William Weld ran against John Silber for the governorship of Massachusetts. Silber was a brilliant man–an academic trained in philosophy who became president of Boston University. But he was also combative and angry. As the campaign drew to a close, Silber amped up his personal attacks on Weld, characterizing him as an “orange-headed WASP” and a “back-stabbing SOB.” To which Weld responded, “The voters are considering whether they want to be yelled at for four years. I don’t think they do.”

Weld won.

We all know from our own experiences that in human interaction, tone and countenance matter, and not simply for stylistic or superficial reasons. They in fact manifest one’s attitude toward life and toward others. They reveal an orientation of the heart. And that can matter more than what you believe the top corporate tax rate ought to be.

Peter Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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