If You're Happy and You Know It, Run for Office
Good cheer is a political asset.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Friday, July 9, 2004
Whatever you think of John Edwards's politics, it's hard not to like him. His dazzling smile conveys a sense of bonhomie and good cheer that provides a refreshing relief from his lugubrious political partner's perennial long face. Mr. Edwards's sunniness helps explain why John Kerry chose him even though he lacks the attributes presidential candidates usually seek: depth and experience, ideological balance, or the likelihood of helping win a swing state. (George W. Bush carried North Carolina in 2000 by nearly 13%.)
Mr. Edwards also seems ill-suited to the traditional vice-presidential role of hatchet man, attacking the opposition and exciting the partisan base. In the primaries he argued that we are "two Americas," that the rich (personal injury lawyers excepted) are oppressing the poor. But his good cheer belied his acrimonious message. In states that allowed crossover voting, Mr. Edwards did better among Republicans and independents than among Democrats. The Angry Left, pragmatically eschewing Howard Dean, cast its lot with the colorless Mr. Kerry on the theory that he was "electable"--that is, the kind of Democrat they calculate non-Democrats would vote for.
There are at least two reasons to doubt this calculation. First, Mr. Kerry is very liberal. This, after all, is a man who in 1988 described the Reagan years as a period of "moral darkness." Second, he exudes gloom and pessimism. His crueler critics on the Internet have dubbed him "Lurch" or "Old Tree Stump." Mr. Kerry is stuck with his left-leaning record, but picking Mr. Edwards seems an effort to compensate for his cheer deficit.
In the age of mass media, Americans tend to prefer leaders who are confident and optimistic. Everyone liked Ike. John F. Kennedy won his televised debate with Richard Nixon because he came off as cheerful and composed while Nixon was sweaty and awkward. (Forty years later, Al Gore repeated Nixon's error three times.) Lyndon B. Johnson achieved the biggest popular landslide ever in part because Barry Goldwater's conservatism seemed crabbed and cranky.
Jimmy Carter's toothy grin and promises of honesty vanquished Gerald Ford, but Mr. Carter's malaise couldn't withstand Ronald Reagan's optimism and faith in America. The robotlike Michael Dukakis was unable to beat even George H.W. Bush, but the elder Mr. Bush proved no match for 1992's Democratic nominee. A dozen years later, Mr. Bush's son saluted the sunniness of the man who defeated his father: "Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency," George W. Bush said last month at a White House ceremony. "He filled this house with energy and joy."
The notable exception to this trend was Richard Nixon. Not only was he the least likable chief executive in recent times; in 1968 he won the White House against Hubert Humphrey, known as "The Happy Warrior"--a moniker borrowed from an earlier presidential loser, Alfred E. Smith. (The man who beat Smith in 1928, Herbert Hoover, had a Greatly Depressing presidency and ended up getting trounced in 1932 by the jaunty Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
Nixon might not have won had 1968 not been such a tumultuous year. The country was mired in a costly war overseas, and Humphrey was part of the administration that had gotten it there. America was bitterly divided over domestic matters too, with left-wing rioting at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Backlash over civil rights and other liberal policies helped George Wallace win five states and 13.5% of the popular vote. Despite all this, a shift of less than 1.5% of the vote in Alaska, Missouri and New Jersey would have given the presidency to Humphrey.
Can John Kerry pull a Nixon? Hopeful Democrats may see parallels to 1968: war, political bitterness, the threat of left-wing protests turning violent outside the Republican convention in New York. But Mr. Kerry's choice of Mr. Edwards suggests that he isn't so confident--that he feels he can't win without a lift. In 1968, by contrast, the victorious GOP ticket was a charm-free zone: Nixon and the splenetic Spiro Agnew. Today's equivalent would be a Kerry-Dean duo.
There's another possible precedent for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Not long ago, one of the parties nominated a famously dour longtime senator for president. He named as his running mate a younger man blessed with enthusiasm, optimism and good looks. You probably remember them, but not as President Dole and Vice President Kemp.
Next article: With Trends Like These . . . (7/27/04)
Previous article: What Makes a President Great? (6/10/04)
Go to main list