Whom Should Republicans Talk to During Election Season?
My mother, Min, died several months after her 101st birthday. With the exception of only a couple of years, her long and eventful life played out entirely within the span of the 20th century.
Min came of age around the time when American women were granted suffrage. She seized on that right and cherished it for the rest of her days, never once failing to cast her vote on election day. Absentee ballots were not available during much of her lifetime, so she reported dutifully to her local polling place, which was housed in the basement of the circa 1920s local public school. As a child, I remember the looming phalanx of metallic voting machines with their levers waiting to be pulled.
Over the years, my mother morphed into a political bellwether. She was so spot-on at choosing winning candidates that we made a joke of comparing her to the State of Maine's consistently reliable voters: "As Min goes, so goes the nation."
Considering the political rift that later developed among her offspring, my mom's clairvoyance proved hard to grasp. During election cycles, my brother and I would do our best to bring her around to our respective ways of thinking. After visits to the homestead, we would both leave convinced that she had seen the light. She always listened to us patiently, often agreeing with one point or another. Then when election day rolled around, she would duck into the polling booth and vote however she damn well pleased – yet always, remarkably, for the ultimate winner.
In the final analysis, she somehow managed to find a compelling reason for her choice, even if it had been arrived at late in the game. Yet the tipping point eluded and often baffled us. One day she would seem set on a certain candidate, only to suddenly switch affections the next. Without even trying, she had become one of the 20% of Americans who qualify as "swing" voters. And swing high and loose she did. I'd even venture a guess that she relished every suspenseful minute.
2000 was the last presidential election in which Min was around to vote. It was also the time when Hillary was making her first run for U.S. senator representing New York State, where my mother – unlike the former first lady – had lived all her life. On separate visits home, my brother and I "went to work" on the independent, widowed matriarch.
I was reassured, for example, that she had no intention of voting for Hillary, since she didn't care for the "relationship" between the tempestuous Clintons. Fine, I thought. But when the time came, she gave Hillary the nod. Asked why, she said simply, "I wanted to see what she would do." In the end, her vote had been driven by some element of curiosity, tickled further perhaps by the fact that the candidate was a woman – and one who, after all, had gone to the same college as her own daughter!
For those who suppose that political ideology trumps personal intuition, think again. Min also voted for George W. Bush for president. (Of course: he won, didn't he? – though many Democrats still contest that.) In any event, a few years after my mother's death, I discovered in her desk drawer a glossy autographed picture of "W" and Laura, acknowledging her donation to the Bush campaign.
I remain an unswerving political animal. But if my mother's chameleon instincts – or shenanigans, if you prefer – taught me anything at all, it is that in election years, people like myself spend too much time talking to people like myself. Whatever persuasive talents we possess should be used instead to talk up the reasons for defeating a liberal candidate in 2016.
Active Republicans can be seen spinning our wheels in a gung-ho and ultimately nettling attempt to bring the other guy around. Case in point: I recently attended a large event at the Reagan Library. While the audience cooled its heels waiting for the arrival of the featured speaker, Carly Fiorina, I found myself seated among a strong pro-Ted contingent, all of whom were relentless in their determination to usher me on board for the Cruz. It does not seem to be enough at this point for Republicans to state their intentions to support the final nominee, whoever he or she may be. Instead, we become consumed by a favorite to the point of being downright insulted by any criticism.
At some point, however, these idealized honeymoons must yield to a candidate's win-ability quotient in the general election. It is often more a matter of neutralizing the opposition than of luring them over to our side. The current crop of Democrat candidates brings little to the political smorgasbord other than knives to carve up the Republican fare. Yet some of us would spare Democrat rivals that bloody obligation by doing it for them ourselves!
As it happened, I watched the first Republican debate at a vacation home shared with my largely liberal family. (Send your offspring to one of the University of California campuses, and expect them to graduate with a very "liberal" degree – arts or otherwise.) As a result, I hardly anticipated leniency from the debate-watchers. What I found, however, was that some Republican contenders appeared far less objectionable than others to those outside our tent
There was general agreement, for example, that Chris Christie had "won" his tiff with Rand Paul, despite the latter's popularity with young libertarians. The clan was likewise impressed by Rubio's forward-looking vision and smooth dialogue. They thought both Ben Carson and John Kasich seem like reasonable men. They found Huckabee quite congenial – even though they had no inkling he played the guitar! And despite jibes against his egotism, they were clearly intrigued by Trump, who they felt shared many of their beefs against the Beltway culture. Even my 7-year-old grandson knew who The Donald is.
So my advice to fellow Republicans would be to preach less to the choir and listen more to other political drumbeats resonating across America in this pre-election cycle. We cannot win the White House without sharing some common vibes with the rest of the electorate. It's a political fact of life that we will need the help of independents and malleable Democrats to win the White House. And the undecided 20% of American voters – the Mins among us – are the ones who, in their own way and in their own sweet time, often decide who will settle into the seat of political power.