Crucial presidential ingredient: optimism

Elizabeth Dole has it. George W. Bush has it. But Pat Buchanan most definitely does not.

Optimism is the characteristic shared by these first two Republican presidential candidates, and it's one reason why Mrs. Dole finished a strong third in the recent Iowa straw poll and Mr. Buchanan, with his "slashing message," finished fifth, says Dole pollster Linda DiVall.

Indeed, history shows that optimism is a crucial ingredient in presidential campaigns. It taps America's can-do spirit, and once a president takes office, it helps sustain him over the long haul. Presidents Clinton, Reagan, Eisenhower, and Franklin D. Roosevelt - who all have been elected to two terms or more - share that trait of hopefulness.

But Americans won't fall for pie-in-the-sky optimism, analysts warn. There must be understandable, substantive reasons behind a candidate's outlook, and it must be tempered with realism, says Wayne Fields, director of American Cultural Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Especially in perilous times, "optimism can be so blatantly out of place, that unless a candidate balances it, it won't work," says Mr. Fields, who adds that a president has to earn the right to be hopeful.

Roosevelt did it with the "fireside chats" he held throughout his presidency. Known for his ebullience, FDR could justify the optimism characterized by his Depression-era campaign song "Happy Days Are Here Again" with the promise of the New Deal.

Television's impact

For the most part, optimism as a winning presidential ingredient is mostly a 20th-century phenomenon, says Fields. Prior to the television era, presidential hopefuls were more deliberate, thoughtful, and meditative. Yet he sees another another vast, historical influence at work - the transformation of America's sense of national unity.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that Americans began to think of themselves as truly unified with a common cause. "The optimism is the 'more perfect union,' that together we're doing better, that we can do better by our association," he says. "That's grown as the country has grown to being primarily citizens of the United States, and not, say, just citizens of Virginia."

Fields and others point to the famous 1979 "malaise" speech by President Carter as an example of what happens when a president loses sight of America as the "shining city on a hill" (a phrase long part of US political rhetoric, used in 1976 by Reagan at the GOP national convention).

When Mr. Carter gave that speech, the country was in the midst of an energy emergency. Chastising the nation's citizens - as well as himself - Carter spoke of "the crisis of the American spirit." The depressing assessment contributed to Carter's 1980 loss to Reagan, political commentators say.

"Voters always like people to challenge them to do better, and to tell them they can do better," not to dress them down as Carter did, says Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst in Washington.

Some political observers say the overall mood in the country determines how well the optimist message plays. Buchanan, who many characterize as a gloom-and-doomer, gave President Bush a fright in New Hampshire in 1992, when he got 37 percent of the primary vote.

Why couldn't he pull the same kind of performance in the Iowa straw poll?

"The economy is better now," says Bob Adams, Buchanan's campaign spokesman.

Still, others say the optimist message plays well all the time, it just serves different purposes. In times of crisis, it offers a way out, and in times of prosperity, it promises a continuation of the good times. Vice President Al Gore's campaign promise to "build an America that is not only better off, but better," and George W. Bush's slogan of "prosperity with a purpose," both look to a brighter future.

"In terms of the type of candidacy, in terms of style and demeanor, [voters] are looking for somebody who is enthusiastic, who is positive, who is upbeat," says Ms. DiVall, the Dole pollster.

One reason why she believes the upbeat style of her candidate will resonate with voters: The electorate is tired of the Republican style in Washington today.

"She frankly benefits by the fact that she is an optimistic, uplifting person. That has not exactly been the label that you would associate with Washington Republicans," DiVall told a recent Monitor breakfast. "They come across as dour, intolerant, judgmental, scolding. I think there are a lot of voters who are yearning for a new look."

Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos recently expressed alarm that Republican conservatives "are the gloom and doomers, and they are going to send us down the sewer again if we are not careful."

Buchanan's spokesman, meanwhile, simply explains that his candidate is "honest" about the situation in America, while the optimists are "deluding" themselves.

Substance over style?

This message does resonate, agrees analyst Rothenberg, but only with a limited audience. The upbeat message, he says, is more in line with today's mood in America, though it is hardly the only factor that voters will consider - a point DiVall readily acknowledges.

Other factors - such as money, party, personality, and issues - determine an election's outcome. Both Dole and Mr. Bush need to add substance to their campaigns, says Mr. Rothenberg, adding that right now, Dole merely comes off as "Miss Mary Sunshine." Members of Dole's camp "have to worry about that perception," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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