The other night in a Senate debate held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, faced off against his challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. At the end of the debate, which was, by all accounts, a brutally hostile affair, one of the moderators asked the candidates what, if anything, they found admirable about their opponent. Barnes answered by saying that Johnson was a devoted family man and he respected that. When Johnson had his turn he said that Barnes was raised well by his parents. “What puzzles me,” he went on, “is why did he turn against America?”
To their credit, the audience in the theater booed lustily.
Autumn has arrived in Tennessee, bringing azure skies, cool breezes, and crystal clear nights, and coaxing yellows and reds and oranges from our foliage. This time of year, my thoughts turn to bird migration, to baseball’s postseason, and, yes, to politics. I am reluctant to go there in a post, and yet I also feel I can hardly avoid it. We are living in such a fraught, dangerous time. In our current climate, I honestly believe the fate of our republic, not to mention our planet, is on the line each time Americans go to the polls.
I am old enough to remember when, during the 1980s, pundits speculated that part of Ronald Reagan’s incredible popularity was attributable to his down-to-earth demeanor. He was a candidate, analysts said, who people, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, would like to have a beer with. (One can only assume the poor grammar in this analysis was meant to reinforce the idea that people drinking beer with friendly politicians pay no attention to syntax.)
In contrast to the dispassionate, moralizing Jimmy Carter and the slightly dweeb-ish Walter Mondale, Reagan was cool, charming, charismatic, and other things that start with “c.” (Although, surprisingly, not “competent” or “coherent” or “compassionate.” But that’s a subject for some other post.) People liked Reagan, even if they didn’t always agree with his policies.
This likability, the “let’s have a beer with him” explanation for political success, came up again in 1988, not because anyone really liked George H.W. Bush, but because no one could imagine Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis even drinking a beer. And also, to be fair, because of the picture of Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a helmet that made him look like Rick Moranis from that scene in Ghostbusters where he’s wearing a colander on his head.
Bill Clinton was seen as more likable than his Republican opponents: the elder Bush, and then, in 1996, the irascible Bob Dole. But nearly everyone in the country agreed that the candidate they really wanted to have a beer with was Ross Perot, the third-party gadfly who mounted insurgency campaigns in both ’92 and ’96. To be clear, it wasn’t that people really liked Perot, but given the crazy shit he said when sober, folks were eager to see what they could get him to say if they plied him with a few brews.
George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns fully revived the “who would you like to drink with?” conversation, in part because old George was a party boy in his younger days and likely would have known the best bars, and in part because his two Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, were blue-blood scions of privilege and wealth, who came across as self-righteous, all-knowing prigs. (Understand, please, that I supported and voted for both of them. I say this from a place of love. Really.)
Barack Obama, with his effortless cool and star power, was the obvious choice in both 2008 and 2012. John McCain, his first opponent was a war hero, but he had nearly as little charm as Bob Dole. And Mitt Romney was and is Mormon, meaning he doesn’t drink at all, rendering moot the question of who was likely to be the better bar mate.
Finally, we come to the election of 2016. Trump against Hillary. Both candidates were deeply unpopular. Neither candidate engendered much enthusiasm in the “who would you like to have a beer with?” measure. And in 2020, the idea that anyone not ideologically aligned with one of the candidates might deign to have a beer with him . . . well, that was pretty much unthinkable. Which kind of brings me to the end of my joking and to my actually-rather-serious point.
Politics have long divided Americans from one another. A glance at popular vote margins through our history show a nation that is more often than not split fairly evenly between (or among) Presidential candidates. Yet today’s America feels particularly tribal. It’s hard to imagine any MAGA Republican setting aside partisanship to say, “Yeah, I’d love to have a beer with Joe Biden.” And no Democrat I know would willingly sit at a bar with Donald Trump.
I will admit that I have always thought the so-called “have a beer” test a foolish way to choose a President (or a Senator, Governor, or Representative). I vote on the issues, and I look for candidates who have gravitas, who are thoughtful, erudite, and analytical. I really couldn’t care less if they seem like a fun drinking companion. Sure, it might be a bonus, but that’s all.
But given the state of our body politic, I’m wondering if I have been too quick to dismiss the value of this other approach. Not because it’s a great way to choose our leaders, but rather because just being able to think in such terms suggests a healthier state of politics than the one we’re in now. Maybe if all of us could once again imagine clinking glasses with a politician from “the other side,” our country might be better off.
Sadly, I don’t see that happening soon.
And so, I would very much like to sit down and have a beer with Ron Johnson. Not because I think he’d be a fun drinking buddy, but because when he’s not looking, I’d very much like to spit in his glass.
Have a great week.