In a typically informative and original column today, my friend David Brooks takes up the 2012 cause of John Thune of South Dakota, the handsome face of small-town non-Alaskan Republicanism. Thune is not too hot, not too cold, just right. That may be, but then David offers this observation regarding the contention that the political tide has turned against the president:
Obama remains the most talented political figure of the age. After health care passes, he will pivot and pick some fights with his own party over spending. He’ll solidify his standing with independents, and if the economy recovers, he could go into his re-election with as much momentum as Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984.
Perhaps, but if that is so, then why does it matter whether the face of Republicanism is John Thune or Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee? Reagan won 49 states in 1984; Walter Mondale couldn’t even draw 40 percent of the vote. Perhaps Mondale ran a problematic campaign, promising tax increases and the like, but a victory like Reagan’s was so overwhelming that the world’s greatest candidate could have run against Reagan and only won a few more states.
Thune may indeed have a pleasing mien and an appropriate demeanor for 2012. But to face down a sitting president and unseat him, a party is going to need more from its candidate. It’s going to take the ability to explain why the country has gone wrong, why what’s wrong is his opponent’s doing, and what he will do to set it right. That requires passion, animation, and a profound sense of the rightness of his views and the wrongness of the views of his rivals. To judge from David’s summary of Thune’s virtues, he may be the best person to lead the GOP if it stays in the wilderness — on “first do no harm grounds” — but not to lead it to a victory that reverses the country’s ideological direction:
Republicans are still going to have to do root-and-branch renovation if they hope to provide compelling answers to issues like middle-class economic anxiety. But in the meantime, people like Thune offer Republicans a way to connect fiscal discipline with traditional small-town values, a way to tap into rising populism in a manner that is optimistic, uplifting and nice.
Optimism, uplift, and niceness are … nice. But they are minor components in a victory strategy — they are there to file off the rough edges of the party. They cannot be its leading edge.