The 2016 Charisma Deficit

Non-Trump GOP contenders are serious, but where’s the star power?

Charisma is a surprisingly rare yet potent political force. And much of the 2016 presidential field has a problem: They don’t seem to have a whole lot of it.

Such highly touted prospects as former Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and others have all failed to gain traction among voters or generate the blazing star-power excitement their supporters undoubtedly expected.

If someone gets chills down their spine when any of them walks into a room, it’s more likely due to the air conditioning.

Donald Trump certainly possesses charisma of a peculiar type as he spouts bombast and irreverence that draws attention. But it’s not yet clear if the clang of Trump’s media coverage-inducing noise will begin to wear thin.

Still, there is no doubting that charisma has played a role in ushering several of our recent presidents into the White House, and it can be sternly resistant to those who question whether it actually masks a lack of substance.

“He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” a July 2008 ad from Sen. John McCain lamented of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s popularity, born of lofty rhetoric. McCain’s strategists attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to get voters to question Obama’s actual readiness to lead, by acknowledging and trivializing his popularity amid images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

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As those voters have since found out, McCain had a point. But the way to steal the adoration of voters is not to disparage what attracts them to a charismatic figure.

Ronald Reagan spent years developing the substance beneath his message, but there’s little doubt his movie-star pedigree helped him overcome the scoffers who thought he was too conservative to be elected.

The GOP field is mostly more charming than Nixon, but far short of Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy personified charisma, of course, and defeated a sitting vice president — Richard Nixon — who had none of it.

Walker’s mantra of being “aggressively normal” may be endearing, but isn’t rousing for Americans looking to feel pride in their nation after eight years of decline under President Obama. Cruz speaks with a kind of soaring eloquence that served him well when he argued cases before the Supreme Court and played on the Harvard debate team, but that could put the rest of us to sleep in the middle of a busy construction site.

Then there is Bush. The darling of the establishment has already riddled his interviews and speeches with awkward gaffes. “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” Bush inartfully blurted out during a speech in Nashville while attempting to lend his voice to the growing chorus calling for an end federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

Bush earned earlier derision for his tone deafness after suggesting in an editorial board interview in New Hampshire that Americans needed to “work longer hours” to fix the economy. Bush simply does not, at this point, seem to have the political magic his eldest brother had.

That isn’t to say the 2016 Republican nominating contest is doomed to remain an affair devoid of élan. With some additional fire in his voice, Walker could blossom into a more inspiring figure. Certainly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can command a room with his charismatic crowd-working ability. Bush will move to steal the show through the airwaves with huge television ad buys from his mammoth campaign war chest.

But for now, there is simply no Reagan — and no Kennedy. It’s not just Republicans, Democrat contenders are mostly a charisma-challenged lot as well.

Hillary Clinton seems allergic to the media and voters. Sen. Bernie Sanders earns novelty points for his unbridled socialism and draws big crowds of progressive liberals, but he probably could never inspire the great “Silent Majority” of ordinary Americans. Meanwhile, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb together don’t come close to evoking excitement.

For now, the charisma gap leaves us with Trump. His brand of rash appeal may not be enough to secure the nomination, or the presidency, but it will make it much more difficult for other contenders to surpass and subdue him. Especially the charisma challenged.

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