Voters Want Rock Stars, Not Policy Wonks

The Clintonista faction of the Democratic Party is now trying to explain the loss of the presidency by the allegedly “most qualified candidate ever to run for the office” to a man who never held public office. On paper, Mrs Clinton is an impressive potential president, and Mr. Trump most assuredly cannot compete on that level. But when one is selecting a chief executive of a continent-wide republic, the ability to lead (that is, the ability to engage average voters and convince them of the rightness of the cause) has to count. In the recent unpleasantness, the world learned that the people prefer a rock star to a policy wonk. Future candidates should bear that in mind.

From the beginning of the campaign, there was a massive “enthusiasm gap.” Apart from older white women who identified with Hillary Clinton, there was little excitement at the thought of her winning the White House. The passionate campaign belonged to Bernie Sanders, a man whose decades old message resonated among the kids who came of age in the Great Recession. However, Mrs. Clinton prevailed because she was the choice of the party establishment.

Meanwhile among the gaggle of candidates in the GOP nomination hunt, only three really had any real passionate followers. Mr. Trump’s were clearly excited to throw their bombs. Marco Rubio’s people were not as numerous nor quite as passionate, but there was a core of them prepared to march on broken glass barefooted for him. And Ted Cruz was the darling of the religious and social right. Interestingly, these were the three most successful at winning delegates.

In the general election, the media were confident of a Clinton victory (and this journal was just as wrong), but every story one read included caveats about the enthusiasm of Trump voters far surpassing that of Clinton backers.

Mrs. Clinton knows the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and has policy papers she probably drafted herself based on 30 years of policy study. Mr. Trump most assuredly knows less about policy and political problems, and he would be the first to admit it were he an honest man about such things. So, why did he beat her in the electoral college?

People will turn up and vote for rock stars of their own volition. Messrs. T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Reagan, Obama, and Trump all possess or possessed the charisma that a leader can tap into in order to get the people to move. Having good ideas really doesn’t matter much in a leader. That’s what the leader’s staff is for.

Consider the founding of the Republic. George Washington is known as the “Father of His Country.” He was a looming figure in the War for Independence to be sure. He was the richest man in Virginia thanks to Martha’s inheritance, he was a veteran of the French and Indian War (where he lost to the French), and was, at six feet three inches in height (188 cm) much bigger physically than most Americans of the 18th century. In a small nation of a few millions that included Messrs. Jefferson, Franklin, J. Adams, S. Adams, Patrick Henry, and all the other founding fathers, it was George Washington to whom all deferred as leader.

Yet consider the policy knowledge and writings of President Washington in comparison to the others. Alexander Hamilton wrote more just about the Constitution than the man from Mount Vernon did in his whole life. The polymaths of the time were President Jefferson and Citizen Franklin; General Washington, not really in the same league. But President Washington could get people to follow where he led better than the others. That made him first among equals.

The next president, whether elected in 2020 or 2024, may be of either sex, any race, any religion (but not an atheist — this is still America), but what he or she must have is the charisma to get people to follow. One can resent this, that the policy mavens can’t win with wonkery alone, but it remains a fact. Politics is show business for the ugly, it has been said. Even the aesthetically challenged need some star power to succeed in their version of show biz.