If you done it, it ain’t bragging.
– Walt Whitman
By Ken Feltman
Maybe whether it is bragging depends on where you have done it.
William Scranton was born to privilege and power. He was a Scranton of the Pennsylvania Scrantons. His father presided over the family’s steel and railroad interests. His mother’s ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and she was active in Republican circles and served as a member of the Republican National Committee. He attended prestigious prep schools and Yale and became a congressman, governor, quixotic presidential candidate in 1964 and ambassador to the United Nations in the Ford administration. He and President Ford were friends at Yale.
He was as blue-blooded as can be. He was also so moderate that he was called “a Kennedy Republican.” He refused President-elect Nixon’s offer to become secretary of state because of his policy differences with Nixon.
As Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater rolled toward the GOP nomination in 1964, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, also a moderate, fell by the wayside, the GOP establishment feared a blow out if Goldwater got the nomination. Scranton bowed to the pleas of Northeastern Republican leaders and tossed his hat into the ring. Within a few weeks, he was flattened by the Goldwater steamroller. As Rockefeller and dozens of other GOP leaders predicted, Goldwater was crushed by President Johnson in the 1964 election.
The last liberal Republican?
Scranton was one of the last of the liberal Republicans to seek the presidency. The Goldwater thumping energized conservatives to transform the GOP. They did, with such effectiveness that former Vice President Richard Nixon won the nomination in 1968, with Governor Ronald Reagan of California coming close while moderates and Rockefeller fell out of contention early. Nixon went on to beat a liberal Democrat, and conservatives in the South began to switch parties. The political alliances that hold to this day were established. The Republican Party moved right and the Democrats moved left.
Scranton and the moderate-to-liberal Republicans were left behind. But Scranton did articulate one principle – I call it the Scranton Rule – that may influence the Republican chances to defeat President Obama next year.
As we fast forward to see the Scranton Rule in action, we need to keep the Likability Rule in mind: Centrist voters tend to support candidate that they find more likable. Affable George W. Bush beat a scowling and opinionated Al Gore and a dour John Kerry. President Obama beat the personification of the nanny state for the Democratic nomination and then smothered a steely fighter pilot. Now, the finger-pointing president has slipped way down on the likability scale.
The Republicans, especially under President George W. Bush, alienated many conservatives and the tea parties were born. But despite their successes in 2010, they have not yet achieved operational control of local Republican Party organizations in more than a few places. But they have worked for candidates who hold to a tougher line on spending and budget issues. They are expected to do so again.
Into this changing political climate, along comes Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry is a larger than life conservative who has been governor of the second largest state for 10 years. He is a charismatic candidate, outsized even among Texas politicians in the way that Texas is outsized among the states. He is beloved in the western parts of Texas and treated like a brother in the eastern, more Southern-leaning parts.
The Scranton Rule
But he violates the Scranton Rule. During his failed 1964 campaign, Scranton ruminated that he would be a better general election candidate against Johnson because he came from a competitive state. He had fought tough battles against the Democrats and had learned how to state his ideas to appeal to a broader cross section. The Arizona senator tended to make statements that went down well in the West but sounded hostile or at least strange to Eastern and Midwestern ears. The red-meat applause lines that brought Arizonans to their feet scared and confused Republicans and independent voters.
Perry talks Texan. He walks Texan. That works in Texas, among the true believers. But Perry’s bravado alienates people elsewhere that the Republicans need in 2012. Part of this is the Likability Rule at work: It is hard for many moderates to identify with the Texas governor. If you look at presidential primaries since 1964, you see that when a candidate is too parochial, too much a captive of the language and ideas of his or her state, that candidate fails. The Democrats have twice nominated Massachusetts liberals. Twice the Republicans have reminded voters that Massachusetts – “Taxachusetts” – is pretty far to the country’s left.
The Democrats nominated candidates from their more liberal states in 1968, 1972, 1984, 1988 and 2004. They won with Southern governors in 1976 and 1992 and got more popular votes in 2000 with a Tennessean. The candidates from the more liberal states sounded out of touch with the voters in the middle. They created an uneasy impression that they were trying to impose an agenda on a skeptical country.
Now it is the conservative Republicans and the tea parties who sound as if they are trying to impose their agenda on the country. When a Republican compounds that impression with the rough-and-tumble rhetoric of a state where the GOP dominates, moderates flee.
Enough Republican voters and party officials realize that to win, the GOP candidate will need to sound serious and not just sound the right-wing alarm. Can Perry change? History is against him.
Only 12 percent of Republican voters say they are happy with the current GOP candidates. Many longed for a Michigan congressman who has no political organization beyond his own district. That usually dooms congressmen who seek their party’s nomination because they do not have a large enough base to launch a presidential campaign.
Other voters yearn for the tough-talking governor of New Jersey, who may be too moderate to get the nomination. Just wait till likely convention delegates learn where he stands on many issues. Still others mention a freshman senator from Florida who understands that he may be too new to gather the national support he would need to win. Despite his Florida base and organization, he knows that a failed effort in 2012 could rule out future presidential campaigns.
Apparently, some of the Bush money people have gone back to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who considered running but declined months ago. A few are talking up former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – again. And there’s always Sarah Palin.
So most Republicans and independents are waiting. Where is Godot when you need him?