Peggy Noonan's piece in the Wall Street Journal today is certainly turning heads. Despite being completely enamored by The One in the 2008 election, it appears that Ms. Noonan is having second thoughts. From start to finish, this is one of the best post-election commentaries that I've read.
The first half of the commentary tears at the very soul of Barack Obama in a way that only pure unadulterated truth can.
The second half, however, which addresses the shortcomings of certain Tea Party candidates, deserves further discussion:
What the tea party, by which I mean members and sympathizers, has to learn from 2010 is this: Not only the message is important but the messenger.
Even in a perfect political environment, those candidates who were conservative but seemed strange, or unprofessional, or not fully qualified, or like empty bags skittering along the street, did not fare well. The tea party provided the fire and passion of the election, and helped produce major wins—Marco Rubio by 19 points! But in the future the tea party is going to have to ask itself: Is this candidate electable? Will he pass muster with those who may not themselves be deeply political but who hold certain expectations as to the dignity and stature required of those who hold office?
This is the key question the tea party will face in 2012. And it will be hard to answer it, because the tea party doesn't have leaders or conventions, so the answer will have to bubble up from a thousand groups, from 10,000 leaders.
Electable doesn't mean not-conservative. Electable means mature, accomplished, stable—and able to persuade.
Conservatives talked a lot about Ronald Reagan this year, but they have to take him more to heart, because his example here is a guide. All this seemed lost last week on Sarah Palin, who called him, on Fox, "an actor." She was defending her form of political celebrity—reality show, "Dancing With the Stars," etc. This is how she did it: "Wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in 'Bedtime for Bonzo,' Bozo, something? Ronald Reagan was an actor."
Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I'll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.
The point is not "He was a great man and you are a nincompoop," though that is true. The point is that Reagan's career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn't in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn't in search of fame; he'd already lived a life, he was already well known, he'd accomplished things in the world.
Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.
Americans don't want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy. They'll vote no on that.
It's not just the message, it's the messenger.
Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Sarah Palin fan. However, Peggy Noonan hits on an incredibly important point in this second part of her post-election take. Why was it that so many Republicans were elected in this year's wave, but several of the most prominent candidates weren't carried with it?
I struggled [in deciding whether or not to support Christine O'Donnell's candidacy in the Republican primary] because I want to support candidates for office that are proven leaders outside of politics. The “perennial candidate” tag stuck to O’Donnell too easily. Other than the desire to oppose the Obama agenda, there was nothing that I could find about Christine O’Donnell that impressed me. What has she done in her life that qualifies her to be one of the most powerful individuals in the country, a United States Senator? She had neither proven her credentials in elected office, nor had accomplished anything else of significance. I want to vote for people who, in addition to being rock-solid limited government conservatives, have proven their leadership abilities in business, the military, lower elected office, civic organizations, or otherwise.
Listening to Christine O'Donnell on television today talking to Bill O'Reilly about her multiple book deal offers and the possibility of appearing on a reality T.V. show really turned my stomach and validated my original concerns about the woman. She really was not a serious candidate after all. It seems as if running for U.S. Senate was some publicity stunt to launch her career. And, of course, sites like Gawker eat this material up and give all conservatives a bad name.
Peggy Noonan makes a very important point and draws on the example of Ronald Reagan's career to drive it home. We want our candidates for high political office to be serious people, with serious accomplishments. They also must reflect and support bedrock conservative principles and values. We need to find and support more Daniel Websters and Allen Wests, not more Christine O'Donnells.
As Peggy Noonan said, "it's not just the message, it's the messenger."