Reinventing the GOP big guy

November 18, 1998|By Stuart P. Stevens

WE NEVER saw it coming.

Nov. 3 was probably the worst day for Republicans since some guy named Butterfield let it drop to Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. that President Nixon had a thing for Memorex.

What made it really a lousy night was the inescapable conclusion that President Clinton had beat our brains in once again.

For almost seven years now, Republicans have failed to grasp the appeal of Mr. Clinton, and we're a heck of a lot worse off for our failure. He drives us so absolutely batty, we constantly overreact with one tone-deaf mistake after another. It's not so much that we disagree with the man; it's simply that we think he's unworthy to be president of the United States.

Which is exactly how the Democratic elite felt about a fellow named Ronald Reagan.

Remember how they laughed about Mr. Reagan and Bonzo. All those smart guys, Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis, those students of government, they felt honor-bound to show us they knew better. Like when Mr. Mondale promised to raise taxes and Mr. Dukakis gloated about fish rotting from the head.

It's tempting to say that both parties have underestimated the importance of personality, to conclude that Americans are drawn to Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton because they are likable guys, the sort of fellow you want to hang out with. Our age is the triumph of celebrity culture, so that thinking goes, where casting is more important than story.

Ronnie and Bill

Well, that's true. But in each side's loathing of the other, we lose sight of the fundamental fact that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton had an intuitive ability to deliver what the people wanted. They understood their market and then delivered. Both also have been blessed with fortuitous timing, capitalizing on the intriguing phenomenon that the most successful presidents tend to be the mirror opposite of their predecessor.

Mr. Reagan was the big guy, the antidote to the smaller-than-life, cardigan-wearing Carter. Mr. Reagan was the quintessential wartime president: strong, slightly aloof.

Mr. Clinton, of course, has been the domestic alternative to Reagan/Bush, and the raging economy has been a constant reminder that, yes, we wanted him to "focus like a laser on the economy," and, hey, take a look, it has worked. Mr. Clinton has won.

What Republicans can't accept is that Americans believe Mr. Clinton has done a good job as president. We think it's all a result of the Republican Congress. After all, up until 1994, when Republicans took over, the Clinton presidency was such a disaster that the poor guy was reduced to pleading on television that he was "still relevant," a pretty pathetic moment.

The rich irony, naturally, is that Republicans probably did save Mr. Clinton, both with our successes and our monumental blunders. We drove the guy off an agenda of gays in the military and nationalized health care and onto tax cuts, welfare reform and a balanced budget. With stunning blunders like shutting down the government, we positioned Mr. Clinton exactly where he wanted to be: the middle.

So here we are, with 2000 staring us in the face, and it's time for Republicans to accept that Mr. Clinton has emerged as the dominant figure of this decade. Although Republicans feel he stole our agenda, we have to go about the business of reclaiming it, not whining.

It's time for Republicans to start inventing our next big guy, someone who has a strong enough personality to hold together the warring factions of the party combined with a positive agenda that seems relevant to the challenges ahead. The other side is stuck with Al Gore, and we can beat that guy.

Can't we?

Stuart P. Stevens, Ellen R. Sauerbrey's gubernatorial campaign media consultant, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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