THERE are 300 million people in the United States of America. There are millions of political activists, volunteers, organizers and would-be officeholders. There are hundreds of thousands of elected officials. Yet somehow, out of all this multitude, the Republican Party has been unable to find a candidate for the White House in 2012 who inspires anything but weary resignation from its voters.
What’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen. As weak as this year’s Republican field has proved, it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.
The problem, perhaps, is that a successful presidential campaign calls on a trio of talents that only rarely overlap. Being a master politician in a mass democracy, in this sense, is a bit like being a brilliant filmmaker who’s somehow also a great economist, or a Nobel-winning scientist who writes best-selling novels on the side.
First, a great politician needs the gift of management. A would-be president has to be the C.E.O. of his or her campaign, with a flair for fund-raising, an eye for talent, and a keen sense of when to micromanage and when to delegate. This is the arm-twisting, organization-building, endorsement-corralling side of presidential politics, and not surprisingly it tends to favor insiders and deal-makers and old Washington hands.
But successful insiders and deal-makers are rarely comfortable with the more public, rhetorical, self-advertising side of politics. The great manager is unlikely to be a great persuader, capable of seducing undecided voters with his empathy, or inspiring them with what George H. W. Bush (who lacked it) called “the vision thing.” He’s also unlikely to be a great demagogue, capable of demonizing his enemies and convincing his supporters that they stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord. The manager can play these roles, but there will always be a hint of irony, a touch of phoniness, a sense that he’d much rather get back to the inside game.
Nor do the gifts of persuasion necessarily overlap with the gifts of demagoguery. Quite the reverse: The politician who’s good at reaching out to the unconverted is usually mistrusted by his own base, and the politician whose us-versus-them rhetoric inspires devotion among ideologues rarely finds it easy to pivot to a more transcendent, unifying style. If Jon Huntsman had a little more Sarah Palin in him, for instance, or Palin a bit more Huntsman, one of them might have been the 2012 Republican nominee. But their respective gifts are rarely shared in a single personality.
When a politician somehow hits the manager-persuader-demagogue trifecta, he can seem unstoppable. (See Roosevelt, Franklin, and his four terms in office.) But just going two for three is usually enough to create an immensely formidable candidate.
Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance, were great persuaders and great demagogues — they could woo with high-minded appeals one moment and twist the partisan knife the next — and that combination more than compensated for their weaknesses as managers. Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t much of a demagogue, but he excelled at playing the unifier in public and at organizational hardball behind closed doors. Richard Nixon’s appeal to voters’ better angels always felt forced, but he could out-organize and out-demonize just about anyone — at least until his paranoia infected his management style, and undid everything he’d built.
The losers of our presidential history, on the other hand, usually have only one gift out of three. They’re good managers, more often than not, whose organizations outlast demagogues and persuaders in the primaries but who can neither rally the base nor inspire the center in the general election. Thus Walter Mondale, victorious over Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart but crushed by Reagan; thus Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis; thus John Kerry in 2004.
This is the path that Mitt Romney, managerial to his core, seems to be treading in 2012. The question is what kind of opponent he’ll find waiting in November. In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to have almost F.D.R.-like gifts: He out-managed, out-inspired and out-demagogued both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
But the presidency, unexpectedly, has exposed his limits as a communicator. Now when Obama demonizes, it seems clumsy; when he tries to persuade, it falls on deaf ears. Unlike Reagan and Clinton, the two masters, he seems unable to either bully or inspire.
What Obama has left, though, is the same capable, even ruthless organization that helped him over the top last time around. Maybe he’ll rediscover the old 2008 magic as well. But if not, the 2012 election is shaping up to be the most wearying sort of American presidential campaign: a clash of two managers, slogging their way toward a prize that a stronger candidate might have taken in a walk.