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Mark Shields: Is There an Optimist in the Presidential Race?

Nation's leader must first prove he is capable of inspiring confidence in fellow citizens

In Watershed, his brilliant book on the 1980 campaign for the presidency won by Ronald Reagan, author John Stacks reported on interviews lasting six hours of 250 individuals, probing the respondents’ “personal and political values,” conducted by the late Dr. Richard Wirthlin, who from 1968 forward was Reagan’s trusted pollster, trusted adviser and personal admirer.

In those exhaustive sessions with the 250, Wirthlin encountered the pessimism and crankiness so pervasive among voters in 1980. But he concluded that the nation’s low morale was due to a loss of public confidence in the nation’s leadership and did not indicate loss of confidence in the nation itself.

Emphasizing Reagan’s innate personal optimism, that 1980 campaign had as its premise that Americans wanted to believe that the country — with its confidence restored by a leader they could believe in — could solve its nagging problems.

On a personal note, I always both liked and trusted Wirthlin, who while always fiercely loyal to the Gipper, could be generous with his findings. As an example, he revealed to me, during the 1984 re-election campaign, when Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states against Democrat Walter Mondale, that the Reagan campaign had polled every night, and Mondale had led Reagan on just two nights all year — the night of the day on which Mondale named Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate and the following night.

By the third night, you may recall, following unanswered questions about her husband’s tax returns, she had become “Mrs. John Zaccaro,” and the race returned to form.

“If you are going to run for national office, you’d better understand that optimism is something that Americans expect,” concluded Democrat Tom Kiley, who served as media adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

The current 2012 campaign suffers from an acute shortage of optimism. Neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could be mistaken for either of those carriers of contagious sunniness — former President Bill Clinton or Reagan.

The country now has the feel of that subway car that has come to a jolting, unscheduled stop somewhere in the dark tunnel between stations. The lights are out. The air is close. There is a palpable nervousness among the passengers. That stalled subway car and the nation today both desperately need that strong, confident voice that can convincingly explain what went wrong, what is now being done to repair the damage, what the passengers and the people can do to help that process and when we can expect to get back on track.

The key question to keep your eye on for the next three months (which some of Wirthlin’s proteges credit him for developing) is: “Do you think things are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?”

Just before the Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives in 2006, just 26 percent of voters judged the United States to be headed “in the right direction,” while 61 percent answered “on the wrong track.”

Just before the GOP lost the White House in 2008, the right track number was down to 11 percent and the wrong track figure was up to 78 percent.

In 2010, when voters took away Democratic control of the House, the right direction was 31 percent and the wrong track was 61 percent.

In the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News July poll, by an almost 2-to-1 margin — 32 percent right direction/60 percent wrong track — voters still see their country mired in trouble and error. Before he would have any realistic prospect of being a successful president in 2013 and beyond, that leader must first prove in this campaign that he is capable of inspiring both confidence and optimism in his fellow citizens. That’s the test.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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