My late grandfather, who ran a retail pharmacy in the highly competitive environs of Manhattan during the Depression years, loved to repeat the following anecdote. A fellow had a shoe repair shop and was making a nice living, when one day a rival opened down the street and hung a sign: "Best Shoemaker in the City." A week or so later, a third opens: "Best Shoemaker in the Country." Then a fourth: "Best Shoemaker in the World." Finally, in exasperation, the original guy strikes back with a sign of his own: "Best Shoemaker on the Block."
When I have worked as a consultant on political campaigns, I have argued to my bosses that they should not focus on selling themselves as the best or even the better candidate. They should run as if they have no opponent, and the plebiscite is a referendum on their qualifications. Up or down, yes or no, do I like this guy?
This thesis becomes very relevant now, as Republicans work on reversing some disturbing trends. First, there is some sag in the poll numbers, although perhaps no more than normal for this stage in an election season. Ronald Reagan went from SAG to the top, but it ain’t easy. Also there is a certain level of disenchantment among generally steadfast Republicans. When budgets bloat, spirits shrink. When illegals seep in, voters bleed out. When politicians are grifters, voters become drifters. How many voters looked at Randy Cunningham going to jail for taking bribes and wrote off all politicians as randy, cunning hams?
In response to this phenomenon, we are hearing the first stirrings of a new chorus: "Consider the alternative." Rush Limbaugh used those very words last week to a long-time Republican who called with a laundry list of sore gripes and sour grapes. Now, you and I would hardly be disposed to dispute the premise that giving the government back to the Democrats would be an unqualified disaster. A trip down that famous road paved with good intentions while packed inside a very stinky package known proverbially, and euphemistically, as a hand-basket. Still, hate just ain’t enough. We need some of that old-time lovin’.
Every society has a culture, and it’s not always clear how it developed, or evolved. For instance, who was it that introduced bears to porridge? But if there is one thing we can say for sure about American culture, it’s that we don’t like doing things just because the other option is worse. People came to this country because we didn’t want "to make the best of a bad situation," we wanted to create a good situation. Other cultures, more stoic ones, more fatalistic ones, and certainly the more pessimistic ones, are comfortable viewing the election process as picking their poison. Not Americans: we operate from a visceral intuition that things can be made good as long as we are determined enough.
Trying to run an election here with a slogan of "I’m not as bad as that other guy" is doomed to failure. Come to think of it, the Democrats tried something like that in the last go-round and it didn’t leave them merry. "Hi, I’m John Kerry. I may have fudged my Silver Star, but at least I didn’t gold-brick in the National Guard. I may have introduced no good legislation in 20 years in the Senate, but at least I didn’t make any bad laws. I may talk in ellipses but at least I don’t talk in malapropisms. And I have good hair." Well, the voters wouldn’t commit to hairy Kerry, and now he’s off surfboarding somewhere.
If the Republicans want to win, forget "the lesser of two evils." Concentrate on showing integrity, confidence and leadership. Forget "your Mama wears combat boots." Concentrate on "my Daddy wears combat boots." You can win the red states without calling the other guys pinkos. The voters are out there, they believe in what you claim to believe in and they want to believe in you.
One final thought. A classic Jewish ethical work gave wives this advice: If you want to be a queen, treat your husband like a king; if you want to be a maid, treat your husband like a butler. I believe that the opposite is at least as true: If you want to be a king, treat your wife like a queen; if you want to be a butler, treat your wife like a maid. Memo to Republicans: respect your voters and they’ll respect you in return.
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