Ever since the rise of a humble shepherd and slingshot ace to the exalted rank of King of Israel it has been the political figures with the compelling stories who have been successful in gaining high office (even Senator (later Chancellor) Palpatine simply wanted to preserve the Republic). Just as a Hollywood movie — in order to get produced in the first place — has to have a one-sentence pitch, the most successful recent candidates on the national level have had appealing motivational narratives that stand apart from whatever policies they may want to enact while in office.
The leading example, of course, is Obama 2008, who had such a good story that most people can, four years later, barely remember who the other candidates were (with one exception). His pitch? “First black President of the USA”. This story is compelling and will certainly be remembered one hundred, even two hundred years from now. The only other viable candidate on the Democratic side had a similar story (“first woman President of the USA”). It says something interesting that Obama’s story won out, perhaps because he won the primaries in most of the more conservative states, particularly the South.
McCain 2008 had a good story too (“Republican who actually tells it like it is”) , but it wasn’t compelling enough to beat Obama’s. It was a story that might have drawn independent votes, but wasn’t so appealing to the Republican core. McCain’s story was ultimately overshadowed by the great narrative of Sarah Palin (“first really hot woman VP”).
The 2000 election — so close that it had to be decided by the Supreme Court — featured two sons of the South: Gore (Tennessee) and Bush (Texas). Neither had a really good story about why they should have been elected (“my daddy was President” doesn’t count), but at the very least Bush’s country-western accent appealed to the southern electorate in a way that Gore’s didn’t. Bush’s effective narrative: “he talks like us.”
Moving back in time, we had Clinton 1992 (“Southern, but still a liberal”), which meant that both those from Arkansas and Massachusetts could vote for the same guy, Reagan 1980 (the original “not a politician” politician), and Carter 1976 (“Southern, but still has a high IQ”) who had the advantage of running against the shadow of “I a not a crook.”
In contrast, we have the dysfunctional narratives — those that are crystal clear to the electorate, although perhaps not to the candidates themselves. In the 2012 Republican primaries we had Perry (“from Texas, and even dumber than Bush 2000”), Bachmann (“so clueless that she can’t tell that her husband is a friend of Dorothy”), and Gingrich (“can’t believe that this double-divorcé is still running”).
For the general election, we have Romney and Ryan. What is Romney’s narrative? “Has the integrity not to release his tax returns?” “Vote for Etch-a-Sketch?” “Elect Romney and you too can hide your assets overseas?” “A Mormon, but still OK?” None of these really seem to work.
Ryan, in contrast, knows the importance of narrative, and lets the electorate know that the story that motivates him is by Ayn Rand. He appears to be open-minded enough not to mind that she was an atheistic advocate of birth control and abortion.
Ryan may be extreme, but at least the electorate knows that there is a “there” there. His story won’t end here.