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Tea Party Candidates Must Learn the Art of Fencing

Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell lost, at least in part, because of their lack of deftness in dealing with a hostile press.

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

November 3, 2010 - 4:14 pm

Tea-Party favorite Christine O’ Donnell lost her bid to become Delaware’s newest senator by a whopping 16% margin. She lost it to a condescending, nasty fellow that nobody in Delaware actually likes very much.

In Nevada, Sharron Angle — another Tea Party favorite — also lost, by a narrower margin, her Senate race against Harry Reid, a condescending, nasty fellow that nobody in Nevada actually likes at all.

Angle ran against an established senator and lost by only 5%,  while O’Donnell, vying for an empty seat, lost by three times that. One would expect the results to have been exactly opposite: that the established candidate would crush his opponent, while the empty seat would bring a squeaker.

Had the economy in Nevada been better, or the mood of the electorate a bit less angry, it is doubtful that Angle could have challenged the incumbent Reid as effectively as she did. Considering both, however, Harry Reid should have been unseated this year, and the only reason he was not — machine politics aside — was because of Angle’s own weaknesses.

Both Sharron Angle and Christine O’ Donnell were running long-shot campaigns in states that habitually send goofball Democrat men to the senate. Both women, unfortunately, carried their own goofball-vibes with them. Angle, on paper a stronger candidate than O’Donnell, had a perpetual deer-in-headlights look to her; she had problems taking questions or working outside of a script, and she ran some questionable ads.

O’Donnell, scrappier and more confident than Angle, was more willing to jump into the fray, but often unable to communicate her thoughts clearly. She also ran some questionable ads. The problem was never that O’Donnell was “not a witch,” but that her “I’m you” was unconvincing and did not resonate beyond her base.

Some are blaming the O’Donnell defeat on the GOP establishment, which was lukewarm to her candidacy. If only Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer had given O’ Donnell their seals of approval, the whine goes, she would have won.

Well, had O’ Donnell lost by a point or three, that argument might be valid, but when a candidate loses by 15 points — particularly against so unlikable an opponent as Senator-elect Chris Coons — the blame needs to be a bit more inwardly directed. On the stump, in debate, and even in her concession speech, Christine O’Donnell came off as a platitude-spouting lightweight, fine for a morning talk show (in fact, perhaps too smart for some of them) but not for the Senate.

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.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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