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Ross Douthat's Rule of Three

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

In his Sunday Review column “A Good Candidate Is Hard to Find,” Ross Douthat argues that successful presidential candidates must possess no fewer than two of three key characteristics. They need: “the gift of management,” the power of persuasion, and the ability to effectively demagogue opponents. Those who possess the “trifecta,” as Franklin Roosevelt did, are unstoppable. Those who master two of the three (Clinton and Reagan lacked management skills; Nixon was unpersuasive) do fine. Those who possess only one of the three (H.W. was, of course, a ‘manager’) tend to fail.

Amid such heuristics, the reader is left wondering about Harry Truman, who was re-elected in 1948 without a particular reputation for any of the three traits, or Lyndon Johnson, who arguably possessed all of them, and flamed out badly twenty years later. But the history lesson is just prelude to Douthat’s argument: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are staid managerial candidates, unable to attack their opponents or to exhort their base, "slogging their way toward a prize that a stronger candidate might have taken in a walk." 33 percenters, if you will.

This argument is flawed in three ways. First, it’s unclear what Douthat means by ‘manager.’ While Romney is indeed “managerial to his core,” Douthat makes only a cursory reference to Obama’s behemoth campaign organization. If Douthat is going to flip the traditional conservative ‘Obama as rock star’ charge on its head, and argue that the President is all substance, no style, some evidence is required. (Besides, didn’t we learn from our Confidence Men that Obama was lacking in this respect?)

Second, more bizarrely, Douthat charges that Obama and Romney are equals in the rhetoric department (which is what ‘persuasion’ and ‘demagoguery’ boil down to). While Mitt’s syrupy paeans to “amber waves of grain” and warnings about European-style socialism are indeed weak tea compared to Gingrich’s pit bull stylings, it’s laughable to think that Obama’s biggest failing is his uninspiring oratory. A glance at Gallup’s latest positive intensity poll appears to bear this out: Obama has a +32 score among Democrats; Romney is at +12 among Republicans. The Democratic base is strongly in Obama’s camp, while likely Romney voters remain unmoved.

Finally, in arguing that electoral success depends on public speaking, Douthat seems to forget that candidates (incumbents especially) compete not only against one another, but against current events. This is especially clear in his dubious contention that Obama has lost all his rhetorical gifts, going from an FDR to an H.W. Bush in three years. Douthat’s characterological critique depends on the notion that candidates either do or do not possess three different essential qualities, yet he judges that the President no longer possesses two of the three qualities he had in 2008. Why might Obama seem different this time around? It’s precisely external factors (bad economy, intransigent Republican opposition) that have blocked him from making the sort of transcendent promises he did last cycle.

Douthat’s theory is a neat one, but ultimately, it’s a roundabout and unconvincing variation on a familiar theme: That Obama’s presidency has been a failed one.