Presidential narratives

Campaign 2012

It is one of the disconnects of the present political race within the GOP that we have had more debates amongst the candidates than ever before, events that focus on policy positions and, of course, debating skills, but give virtually no attention to that interesting but powerful variable that seems decisive in American elections: the personal narrative.

The life-story-as-argument-for-office goes way back, but consider even just the last 30 years.

  • Ronald Reagan was the lifeguard from Dixon, Ill., and son of an alcoholic who went off to Hollywood to make his fortune.
  • George H.W. Bush didn't have a narrative, but he had Michael Dukakis, the dull, liberal, Massachusetts technocrat to help him past that deficiency.
  • Bill Clinton was the man from Hope, Ark., also the son of an alcoholic, who became the youngest governor in his state's history.
  • George W. Bush came from privilege but had a narrative nonetheless. He was the frat boy who hit bottom with booze, found Christ, repented, and learned to be a better Bush.
  • Barack Obama's narrative is documented in at least two autobiographies. He had the African absentee father who gave him his dreams, and the flighty, globetrotting mother who abandoned him to his grandparents. Then (after an Ivy League education) came his conversion to some sort of Christianity and his tireless community organizing.

Other narratives didn't work so well, in particular the wounded warrior (Bob Dole), the Vietnam vet (John Kerry, who was a warrior before he was an anti-warrior), and the war hero (John "Country First" McCain).

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So where are the narratives in the current Republican field? Mitt Romney? Fighting your way up from being the son of a Michigan governor to being co-founder and CEO at Bain Capital just doesn't sing well. Herman Cain has a good story, working his way from po' boy (his term) in Georgia to restaurant magnate and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. But his problem these days is too many stories.

Perhaps the best bet for the Republicans is to skip the poetry and offer competent management, predictable policy, and a prosaic relief from dashed messianic hopes. That doesn't sound so bad. But will it sell in Peoria?

Read a review of D.C. Innes' new book, Left, Right & Christ, from the current issue of WORLD.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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