Often, things are just the opposite of what they seem. Conventional wisdom is frequently the height of foolishness. Reality can be a fairy tale. In the political realm, no widely held belief may be so ironically wrong as the myth of electability.
Take Senator John McCain as a case in point. Why are Republicans in the process of nominating Senator McCain as their choice for President of the United States?
It is not because John McCain best represents the ideas and ideals of the majority of Republicans. His policy positions on many issues have been significantly outside of the majority of mainstream Republicans. Most Republicans, I think it is safe to say, opposed his campaign finance bill, his immigration-amnesty bill, his patient's bill of rights, and others. And most Republicans, I think it is safe to say, supported efforts he opposed, like President Bush's tax cuts and the nuclear option to make the judicial confirmation process conform to the Constitution.
John McCain is not being nominated because he is the inside-establishment choice for President, either. McCain has been the maverick, openly defying Republican Party leadership throughout the last 15 years. He has famously feuded with Republican stalwarts like President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Rush Limbaugh. He came shocking close to switching parties when the Senate was teetering in the balance of power in 2001. He flirted with being Democratic candidate John Kerry's running mate in 2004. This is not exactly the resume of an establishment candidate.
John McCain is not being nominated because he offers a compelling vision for the future of the country. He is not captivating generations with his oratory skills. He is no Ronald Reagan. Even in victory, his speeches sound listless and monotone. Nor is he advocating a fresh or compelling governing philosophy. He is not making the case for a program or idea that will reform some aspect of government or culture.
Mitt Romney looks and sounds and lives like most Republicans. Fred Thompson has the stature of an elder statesman of the GOP. Mike Huckabee gives great quote. Rudy Giuliani proposed the biggest tax cut in American history. But none of them are going to be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2008.
So, why is John McCain going to be the nominee of the Republican Party? The answer is that most Republicans have come to believe that he has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in November. Most Republicans think that McCain is "electable." A plurality of Republicans has come to see McCain as the best, if not the only, candidate who can reach out to independents and moderates. Given his term in the Senate and even his treatment by the Bush campaign in 2000, they think that it is his turn to be the nominee. And, they hear the heroic story of his life and think that the American people will see him as deserving of the Presidency.
2008 Republican voters have fallen for the myth of electability.
They are not the first to have done so. Consider the similarities between John McCain and two recent other "electable" candidates - John Kerry and Bob Dole. All three were senior and significant members of the Senate when nominated who were viewed as next in line for their parties’ nominations. All three were bona fide war heroes with motivating personal stories that could make up for their lack of personal charisma. All three had a long voting record that could be spun in any direction, appealing to a majority of voters.
But voters do not pick Presidents because it is "their turn." They do not pick Presidents whose story makes them somehow more deserving. And they do not pick Presidents because they are the most broad and appealing candidates. In other words, Americans do not elect the most "electable" candidates.
Americans choose candidates in whom they can see a bit of themselves and who inspire them. Americans are drawn to candidates whose humanity is evident: Ronald Reagan's humor, Bill Clinton's empathy, even George W. Bush's down-home grammatical challenges. Americans don't necessarily want a President who, like a grumpy grandfather, will make them feel bad about themselves.
Even more importantly, Americans want to be inspired by their President. The media makes it sound like being polarizing is a bad thing, but in fact, a polarizing politician actually incites passion within his or her supporters. Ronald Reagan made Americans believe that we lived in a shining city on a hill. Bill Clinton was going to build a bridge to a new century. And George W. Bush committed himself to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office. Those were grand ideas that many people could get behind. Inspiring candidates cast a vision of America that compels Americans to believe in them, to dream, to hope. Others might shake their heads in disbelief, seeing their dream as nightmare, but these kinds of politicians engender enough energy to carry them to victory.
I don't know anyone who relates to John McCain. For all of his straight talk, he still comes off as a crusty Washington bureaucrat who thinks he knows better than I do how I should live my life. And though his story is a historic one we all appreciate, personal heroism decades ago doesn't translate into the kind of personal charisma and rhetorical optimism that will create a groundswell of support that will carry him to the Presidency.
Like Bob Dole and John Kerry before him, John McCain will lose because he is electable.