First, as I’m sure many others have done, I’d stress that it is important for the candidates to be themselves. They should not try to adopt a radically new and different persona in an attempt to get attention, to better fit some mold that they think (or are told, by the media or others) is what the voters currently want, or, especially, to seem more like another candidate who might be ahead of them in the polls. To the candidates: Of course you can talk more about issues that you didn’t really discuss before, and, by all means present your ideas more clearly, confidently, and passionately to the national audience. But, please don’t just talk more loudly or act aggressively toward people to appear stronger or tougher or more “interesting.” Trying to play what you think may be the role of “Public’s Desired Candidate #1” is probably not going to work for you. For one thing, if the way you try to do and say things is not natural for you, you may well come across as fake to the public, and that will not help you to win support. Also, although it may be tempting to try to adopt some qualities associated with those leading in the race, I’m not sure that there is actually that much to be gained, as voters who are looking for someone with those characteristics already have a candidate. Your goal might best be to persuade these and other voters that you, with your particular record, ideas, and personality are really their best option instead. To that end, you should strive to be the best version of yourself at the top of your game. After all, you’ve all been quite successful in your careers up to this point presenting yourselves one way -- is a presidential run really the time to change that?
Next, at the risk of sounding like a wimpy peacenik, I’d strongly encourage those seeking the Republican nomination to avoid, to whatever extent they can, directing negativity towards their fellow Republican candidates. People often bring up Ronald Reagan’s reference to the “commandment” that “thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,” and I believe it would be best if the candidates could follow this rule whenever possible.** I worry that, otherwise, the long primary process, with so many people vying for the prized nomination, could turn into a hostile battle that would have very serious undesirable consequences. From a practical standpoint, it can’t help the cause of electing the eventual nominee if the Democrats and their allies are able to add a lot of critical quotes about him or her from other prominent Republicans to the many attacks they’ll come up with on their own. Also, if things get particularly heated amongst the primary candidates, it might be more difficult to persuade voters whose candidates leave the race to support someone who remains, either in the later primaries or in the general election.
Now, I may just not be particular enough, but I believe that the Republicans have a very strong field of candidates right now, and I think that there is a lot to like and admire about many of them. I would really hate to see them all knocked down into an image-tarnished scrap heap of failed, unsatisfactory candidates by a bunch of inter-party criticism dwelling on every little perceived flaw or awkward comment or slight deviation in a particular area from what most people would consider the conservative position. The way I see it, Republican vs. Republican negativity can hurt both the target, who is being shown in a poor light, and the originator, who may come across as mean-spirited or desperate and may turn off potential voters. Republicans and conservatism as a whole may also be damaged, as it may be tough to avoid having a negative image in the eyes of members of the public if the majority of the things they hear about your party or movement from both opponents and members is critical.
Certain types of negative comments, such as those that criticize Republican candidates from the left, can be especially problematic. In the 2012 campaign, there were occasions when some of Mitt Romney’s rivals for the nomination leveled remarks toward him that basically seemed to echo the liberal view that being wealthy and successful in business are themselves bad things. I found this troubling and disappointing, especially when it came from a candidate who has always been a favorite of mine. Whether these candidates actually felt this anti-”rich guy” sentiment themselves or were bringing it up because they believed a lot of voters held that view, for me it was a particular low-light of the campaign for conservative candidates to contribute to the spread of the liberal/socialist notion that those with wealth and success are to be disliked because they must have attained those things by taking from or harming others.
So, to wrap up my short stint as a pretend campaign advisor, here are a few more suggestions I’d address to the candidates:
- The best approach to making your case to the public should be pretty basic. Tell people the things about your record, experience, and views that you think would make you a good president, and present your ideas, plans, and proposals about various issues (such as health care, immigration, Social Security, national defense, terrorism, etc.)
- You can certainly contrast your plans with those of others and explain why you think yours are better, but, hopefully, that can be done without throwing out accusations against your opponents. For example: “I believe that my highway improvement plan is preferable because it should cost taxpayers 5% less than Candidate X’s proposal,” rather than, “Candidate X says that he wants to reduce government spending, but the highway plan he proposes would be more costly to taxpayers, which shows that he’s really a big-spending liberal!”
- You don’t have to start all of your sentences at a multi-candidate gathering with references such as, “my esteemed colleague, the Senator from...,” but being civil or even cordial amongst yourselves would be nice. After all, you’re all (hopefully) on the same larger team in the long run and in many cases will need to work with each other in the future. I’m sure that you all face more than enough opposition and animosity from those on the other side of the aisle, so wouldn’t it be nice to maintain friendly relationships with those who should be your allies?
- You can go ahead and practice your criticism skills on political opponents like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and on dangerous outsiders like ISIS and Iran. There should be no shortage of material with those targets!
In a perfect world, those who pay attention to debates, campaign speeches and advertising, and other events would get the information that they need about the various candidates to enable them to make good decisions about whom they’d like to support without being exposed to so many attacks on everyone that they just conclude none of the candidates are worthy of their votes.
For the record, I’m not suggesting that each primary debate should end with a group sing-along of “Kumbaya.” As long as everyone aims for a tone suited more for a collegial discussion than a professional wrestling match, things should be OK. Of course, bursting into communal song might be good for TV ratings and some interesting news coverage, so maybe someone could come up with a party fight song for these occasions...
** I realize that there are times that remaining positive will not be possible, and, unfortunately, some current circumstances may already warrant exceptions. As this post is rather lengthy as it stands, more on this topic will have to follow later.