Advancing a Free Society

Comedy is Hard, Campaigning is Easy

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

If NBC should decide to resurrect Last Comic Standing, here are three acts you likely won’t be seeing during sweeps week:

1)  Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania senator and moderate skeleton in Rick Santorum’s conservative closet, doing 12 minutes of stand-up at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Manhattan.

2)  President Obama, trying to deflate accusations that he’ll sell out to Russia on missile defense once reelected, jokingly asking reporters:“Are the mics on?”

3)   Mitt Romney, in the course of his first 2012 appearance on The Tonight Showtelling Jay Leno that David Letterman would be a good running mate – and Santorum a good . . . press secretary.

In Romney’s defense, his reason for appearing on the Leno show wasn’t to offer himself as the king of one-liners.

The goal was laying the foundation for something far more crucial to his chances of becoming POTUS 45: coming across as the more amiable and likeable choice in the fall election.

If that sounds overblown, consider what’s transpired over the past two decades of presidential contests. The race hasn’t always gone to the man who was younger, or taller, or richer – or, arguably, more accomplished or better tested.

But, without exception, each election has tilted to the man who seemingly was more empathetic . . . and easier to relate to.

In 1992 and again in 1996, Bill Clinton better connected with voters than George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush was more personable than the sighing Al Gore and the wooden John Kerry. Ordinarily, John McCain – he of the Hanoi Hilton, maverick persona and comfort cracking wise on late-night TV – might have enjoyed the empathetic upper hand.  But he ran into the Obama buzz saw – and a once-fawning media that dumped McCain for a new flame.

That takes us to 2012 and the question of whether Romney can, in some respects, out-Obama Obama by being the guy who rolls up his sleeves, throws himself into adoring crowds and offers himself as an agent of change versus an unacceptable status quo.

Granted, there’s an argument to be made that a lot of what worked for Obama in 2008 doesn’t apply to 2012 – good luck selling the American people a second consecutive time on lofty promises and gilded rhetoric in an election defined in part by an incumbent who didn’t live up to his hype (figure it this way: in July 2008, then-candidate Obama drained a three-pointer, on his first attempt, in front of the troops in Kuwait; in 2012, the less-lucky President Obama would probably clang the jumper off the rim, with his aides claiming he was fouled).

Still, the numbers suggest that Romney has some ground to make up with the national electorate. He’ll soon emerge from March with a comfortable lead in delegates – and, according to various polls, the worst primary-season favorable-unfavorable split of any major-party nominee over the past 36 years.

How does Romney overcome this? History suggests securing the nomination is a first step: both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the last two gentlemen to unseat presidential incumbents, trailed badly in the spring – when they still weren’t nominees.

However, Clinton and Reagan were able to offer themselves not only as new-direction candidates, but candidates with compelling personal narratives – Reagan, the patriotic/optimistic westerner; Clinton, the product of “a place called Hope”.

This too has been an importance (and dubious) change in presidential politics since 1992 – the expectation of a Horatio Alger story for each candidate to tell. It began with the story of Bill Clinton’s biological fatherdying in a car crash three months before the future president’s birth, was followed by tales of younger George Bush kicking the bottle at his wife’s insistence, and then continued with Barack Obama as a global metaphorfor breaking through racial barriers.

No such narrative for Romney currently exists. To date, his campaign has been long on his private-sector skills set and institutional advantages (money, ground game) over his GOP rivals – Romney’s campaign resembling his friend Meg Whitman’s failed gubernatorial bid in California.

The good news: assuming he’s the nominee, Romney has until the end of August and the national convention In Tampa – at which time he’ll have a big soapbox and a waiting national audience time to offer both a compelling video biography and speeches by the nominee and the nominee’s spouse. It’s his opportunity to put a human face on a campaign that Democrats are certain to challenge as lacking in humanity.

Romney isn’t the first presidential hopeful to face the challenge of how to show a more personable side. Richard Nixon played the piano and laterappeared on Laugh In.  Bill Clinton donned Wayfarers and tooted his own horn (literally) on Arsenio Hall’s show.  Al Gore did a Top-10 list andsmashed ashtrays with David Letterman. Sarah Palin “raised the roof” onSaturday Night Live.

So far, what we know about Mitt Romney is he’s definitely not hip-hop, maybe or maybe doesn’t own a pair of Ray-Bans, and sings rather than plays the sax.

In other words, there’s a lot we don’t know about the candidate – and it’s the candidate’s choice as to what he chooses to tell us.