When Pat Buchanan kicked off the 1992 GOP convention with his “angry-man speech” about the decline of American culture, I was in the press section, thinking, “that’s just Buchanan being Buchanan.” I had heard his radio show countless times while living in Washington, so I knew his frustrations. He had made the same points in columns and speeches. So I didn’t think much about it.
Boy, was I wrong. The lid almost blew off the Astrodome as his heated words about “a religious war going on in America” stunned swing voters. Some delegates lapped up his call to battle for America’s soul, but that speech left Republicans playing catch-up from then until Election Day, vainly trying to show Americans they weren’t that cranky.
The GOP would be wise to remember that history before Republicans get too far down an angry trail again. Look at the cheering that erupted when, in his first presidential debate, Rick Perry defended the death penalty in terms that Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” would appreciate.
Another audience applauded when Ron Paul was asked about whether an uninsured man would simply have to die in a hospital if he couldn’t pay. While Paul finally suggested that churches should intervene, the clapping made clear that some on hand thought the hypothetical guy should instead just meet his maker.
True, the clapping didn’t come from everyone. Even Perry said he was taken aback by the reaction. But angry voices are leading the GOP.
Perry exudes that anger with his loathing of Washington. You can see the seething in his defiant answers about Social Security. He’s right that we must fix the program, but his delivery suggests he’s looking for a fight.
The one place he isn’t channeling conservative anger is immigration. Tea partiers are tied in knots over his support for letting children of illegal immigrants attend college in Texas and pay the same rates as in-state students. He’s courageously stood his ground.
Michele Bachmann exudes anger, too. The GOP congresswoman typifies a new evangelical feminism that resents the media’s lack of understanding of conservative Christian women. Like Perry on Social Security, Bachmann has a point. Many evangelical women who are aspiring to be leaders aren’t understood outside of their subculture.
Bachmann wears her resentment proudly, especially when it comes to her role as both a career woman and a submissive helpmate at home. Like Sarah Palin, she can build up a big head of steam about government. Lisa Miller of The Washington Post terms Bachmann and Palin “kick-butt fiscal conservatives” and “gun-toting, self-reliant and pro-life.”
There’s a point at which this anger could scare off pivotal independents. Matthew Wilson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor, rightly observes that angry Americans won’t vote for President Barack Obama anyway. The GOP needs to worry about undecided voters.
As Wilson also says, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush campaigned differently — and successfully. They ran in 1980 and 2000 with a hopeful message about America’s future. It’s hard to feel that hope nowadays. The Census Bureau revealed last week that the median income for males has not really changed since — get this — 1973.
Instead of expending so much energy lashing out, candidates serious about winning in November should focus on optimistic solutions. Take the median-income statistic, for example: Why not offer specifics on how to expand access to higher education? After all, college-educated males actually increased their earning power or kept it steady. Women with college degrees definitely outpaced their peers without one.
That’s just one example of how to talk constructively about America’s future. GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman is certainly trying to do just that, but the others need to give it a serious try.
Otherwise, the 2012 race could become a supersized version of that 1992 GOP convention.
• McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.