Academics have a hard time studying the presidency. There are few cases, little data aside from election results and administrative activity, and the recognition of the overwhelming importance of something as subjective as "leadership." Presidential scholarship usually ends up in the hands of historians who write what amounts to long-winded journalism about the men in office and political scientists who have a hard time getting their colleagues to pay attention to them.
Unfortunately a lot of the factors that lead to success in elections and politics are subjective. Leadership is like obscenity. We can't define it but we know it when we see it. What makes people watch a Bill Clinton speech and like him? What made so many Americans buy George W. Bush's honest, regular-guy horsecrap? What made John McCain appealing as a Senator and so unappealing as a presidential candidate? Like the bobbleheads on TV we can all throw out some plausible explanations, but if required to produce empirical evidence we'd come up empty. Yet these qualities, things like charisma and leadership, are the difference between the expected and unexpected in our elections.
The 8th Congressional District of Florida is a Republican's wet dream. It's not only in Orlando, it's in the suburbs of Orlando. Minivans, subdivisions, strip malls, and moneyed white people as far as the eye can see, all in the artificial shadow of Disneyworld. This is Reagan's America in a nutshell and at best the Democrats might hope to sneak a Reagan Democrat in during an anti-Republican landslide. Right? Well, after 20 years under Republicans Rick Keller and Bill "Clinton Impeachment" McCollum, the district elected Alan Grayson in 2008. If you're not familiar with him, Grayson is a major pain in the GOP's ass, one of the loudest, crudest, most outspoken ultra-liberal Democrats in Congress. Grayson is the current It Girl of the progressive community and his name alone is enough to get the average left-leaning blogger in a tizzy.
As you might imagine, the Republicans have made a lot of noise about making Grayson a target in 2010. It makes a lot of sense given the demographics of the district. Surely his victory in the Democratic landslide of '08 was a fluke. The problem is that they can't get anyone decent to run against him. The people in his district love him (and it can't hurt that he's wealthy when it comes to scaring challengers). There are currently eight people in the GOP primary – including a few teabagger types – and the best they can do is State Rep. Kurt Kelly. Grayson's odds of winning are pretty good to say the least.
How? How is it that the same Democratic Party enthralled with the sage advice of the Liebermans and Bayhs and Harold Fords of the world – move to the mushy center, and fast – can count Grayson as one of its safest freshman in a district George W. Bush won with 55% of the vote…twice? I'd suggest that Grayson does well because he has those "leadership" skills and his constituents respond to them. Sure, they might not agree with his policy positions on everything or his vituperative attacks on Dick Cheney, but he means what he says and he's not afraid of anyone. Maybe voters would rather see an elected official with a spine than one who caves at the slightest hint of opposition. Maybe a guy who doesn't back down seems like a better advocate for the district's interests than some ideologically compatible but spineless douchebag. Who'd you rather have in your corner when Congress decides to yank funding for the local pet project – Grayson or Harold Ford?
Nah. Surely the key to electoral success is to bend over in front of the opposing party at every conceivable opportunity.