The Rise (and the Inevitable Repeated Fall) of the Conservative Savior™
Call it the Dan Quayle Effect.
Ever since Ronald Reagan rode of into his term-limitted sunset, conservatives have been waiting on his second coming: some plucky, charismatic leader that would bend Republicans and centrist Democrats alike toward an era of conservative prosperity. Every year or so — especially the years preceding Bush-the-Younger’s crumbling and self-imploding second term re-election — conservative pundits, news outlets, and establishment politicians have collectively announced to the world that their new savior was just over the hill, on his way to bury liberalism for a generation.
Understand: I’m not talking about the Herman Cains or Michelle Bachmanns here. Every political party has it’s Kucinich-esque doll it likes to take down during primaries and play with for a while. But like most children’s toys, those types of also-rans were never intended to be brought to the Adult table, even by those that most liked playing with them. No, I’m talking about those hat-tossers that fall into a category I call Conservative Saviors™: those previously obscure Republicans that were announced ahead of time as game changers, charismatic political weapons of mass destruction to which the Democratic Party would have no choice but to sue for peace once the public was given its proper introduction. And once introduced, the fate of all Conservative Saviors™ has become remarkably easy to predict: they fade into obscurity as quickly as they arrived, not with a bang but a whimper.
The prototype for (and indeed, the patron saint of) the Conservative Savior™ was Dan Quayle, the VP that followed Reagan’s own Number One Observatory Circle dweller. For those here too young to remember his quick rise and fall, Quayle is likely known as the guy who was no Jack Kennedy. But before that moment, he was the darling of the Washington Press Crop largely for the way he came packaged by the RNC: a once-in-a-generation politician with such a staggering amount of charisma, brains, and move-star good looks that columnists actually wondered how the Oval Office would be able to get anything done after the election with all of America fawning so over their second-in-command. In fact, it was that VP debate — the one that forever labeled him as a vapid and in-over-his-head moron to the general public — that we were all told would seal his inevitable ascendancy. In retrospect, of course, Quayle was never the can’t-tie-his-shoes imbecile he was made out to be. He was a serviceable small-state junior politician, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. His downfall was as severe as it was for the same reason we end up hating time-share salespeople: what was delivered fell so short of what was promised that it royally pissed the country off.
Quayle’s blueprint aside, however, the rise of the Conservative Savior™ really took root in the later years of the George W Bush administration. Bush’s growing failings as a “real” conservative as well as a President and the ascendency of the right wing media machine combined to make the creation, promotion, and coverage of the Conservative Saviors™ something of a lucrative cottage industry, as well as a topic to cover on slow news days. What matters with a Conservative Savior™ candidate, in retrospect, is never quality of candidate so much as finding someone most people know little enough about to be snookered in to carrying a banner. Thus was Fred Thompson the Conservative Savior™ That All Democrats Feared, right up to the time he threw his hat in the ring and opened his mouth on camera. The same can be said of Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Paul Ryan, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and now Scott Walker — who, if this week’s debate is any indication, is going to be this election’s Perry.
What’s truly depressing about the Conservative Savior™ trend is its cynical selection process. For a party that likes to advertise itself the enemy of identity politics, all Conservative Saviors™ are chosen for the most superficial and banal of reasons. People like Hollywood actors, let’s pick Fred Thompson! Hey, Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson aren’t white at all, let’s move them to the front of the line! Everyone loves Texas! Paul Ryan is so dreamy and buff! A lot of women seem to like this Hilary person — do we know any women?
As best I can tell, this is an entirely Republican phenomena. The Democratic Party seems to want its POTUS nominees to be forged in the fires of public service for extended periods of time. Indeed, there almost seems to be an unwritten series of steps someone has to go through before party and pundits throw its collective weight behind a hopeful. Even Obama, who actually was that guy, had to go through the arduous process of having party and punditry repeatedly telling him “it’s Hilary’s turn now. You need to wait another decade for your turn.” In fact, the last Donkey I can remember having bucked this trend was Bill Clinton, and he rose during a time when his party was hapless and largely broken — and even he needed the “proven” forerunner to be dumber than a sack of hammers and have to withdraw because of scandal.
What I can’t figure out is, why do conservatives continue to do this to themselves, year after year, election after election? Is it a Media Machine thing? Is it related to their insistence that the person most qualified to run a large bureaucracy is someone who has zero track record of successfully running a large bureaucracy? Or is it, as I suspect might be the case, that it’s just the inevitable result of choosing to be a populist party? That more than any other group, populists are the ones most likely to line up to be fleeced by carnival barkers telling them whatever they want to hear?
Whatever the reason, when watching Jindal, Perry, Walker, et al in the debates this week I kept thinking that the GOP’s constant reliance on the Conservative Savior™ over those in their midst with long track records of successful governing is looking like it’s going to kill their chances at a White House stay once again.
 Although, I should note that it’s possible that the Reagan-Worship era may be coming to an end.
Reagan’s name was brought up far, far fewer times in any GOP primary debate than I have seen since the 1990s. What’s more, it was the first GOP debate I’ve seen in over a decade where Reagan’s actual policies were invoked, as opposed to the repeated Reagan soundbites and WWRD mantra I’ve come to expect. This meant that Reagan’s funding of medicaid was actually brought up, an utterance which I think would have gotten a candidate booed off stage back in 2012.
[Pics: Screen shot of the collected Wikipedia pics of Quayle, Thompson, Jindal, Perry, and Walker]