Having decided that this race is over, the pundits are already moving on to 2012 and mulling over the Republican contenders. Sarah Palin is getting surprisingly positive reviews. Suddenly the boo-birds can appreciate her political talents and acknowledge that she has energized the GOP base like no other candidate.
I’d prefer to finish this election first, but Palin is a reminder for the pundit class, including conservatives, that the messenger counts every bit as much as the message. Mitt Romney dutifully checked the box on nearly every item on the conservative policy wish list, but ultimately couldn’t connect with voters as a credible, engaging spokesman for conservatives. (Yes, there was a divided field to break up the conservative base, but he never galvanized actual voters.) John McCain has embraced much of the conservative agenda, but has proven to have limited skills of persuasion both as an orator and debater.
This isn’t to say policy doesn’t matter and a record doesn’t count. They do, more so for Republicans usually than for Democrats. But Republicans have learned the hard way in this general election that eventually their candidate has to go toe-to-toe with the Democrat and be more persuasive, more likable and more engaging. Or at least hold his own. When Republicans do get around to considering the 2012 race (hopefully not in three months) they should keep in mind that politics is convincing people who have something else to do and who aren’t professional pundits to follow you. That takes a compelling message –and a compelling messenger.