The GOP establishment was warmer toward Angle than to O’Donnell, and yet she still went down to a sound defeat, disproving the notion that a Rovian thumbs up would have made a difference.
It is very true that the press was gunning for both women — particularly against O’Donnell, whose scalp they very much meant to collect. But good candidates are not defeated by unfriendly media, because they transcend it. Reagan did it. George W. Bush, who had to contend with “snipers wanted” signs attached to his image before he even became his party’s nominee for president, did it. Good candidates may believe the press is their enemy, but they never betray that belief. Instead, they joshingly push them aside and talk to the voters directly.
The josh-and-push is an essential part of a successful campaign; it demonstrates a deftness of touch that denotes a true statesman. When one cannot handle the abuses of the press — or feels inclined to respond to their every aggression — the electorate gets a subconscious message: “you let your opponent get into your head; you fluster; you take small things too seriously and lose focus.” All of that translates into: “you are not a strong leader.”
Is it unfair? Perhaps. The fact is some candidates (Barack Obama and John Kerry come immediately to mind) do benefit from the unquestioning goodwill of the press in an election year, while other candidates must fence with media. But thrust-and-parry between a candidate and the media can both sharpen a candidate’s edge and enliven his footwork to his benefit; one smooth slice, well-timed, can topple both press and opponent, and linger in a voter’s memory as a satisfying match they want to see replayed. Clumsily holding a sword with two hands and waving it wildly to keep everyone away, however, impresses no one; it just makes people step out of range.
This is something Sarah Palin (and for that matter, the Tea Partiers) may wish to keep in mind for 2012. Palin is perfectly capable of deft bladework, but too often chooses to attack when a parry-and-feint will do. Her methods may please her press-hating base but — as we see with Angle and O’Donnell — one needs more than principles and an echo-chamber-emboldened base in order to win an election. One needs to be able to demonstrate skill with a keen-edged sword, so that when one lifts it above the noise and the babble, a majority will want to follow it to victory.