In 1980 Ronald Reagan changed the foundations of presidential politics when he went before an Evangelical group and, referencing the fact that preachers weren't supposed to endorse politicians, famously declared: "You can't embrace me, but I embrace you."
They loved it and voted for him in record numbers. Before 1980, many Evangelicals and conservative Catholics either stayed home or voted Democratic, but Reagan changed everything. Since then, only one Democrat, Bill Clinton, has won the White House, and he did it by winning substantial numbers of these voters. You can do the same, but you've got a lot of work to do and a lot of fences to mend.
Can you believe it? This is a huge Democratic year, your opponent is one of the most charming and attractive candidates in presidential election history, and you're just outside the margin of error? Amazing. Don't get cocky, you could still blow this thing, but you're probably going to pull this out of the hat — but only if you do a few key things.
A few stats:
Eighty-four percent of Americans call themselves Christians. When you think of this group, think of yourself. If somebody asked you how you became one, you'd probably say because you were born in America or because your parents were Christian.
Next, 47 percent of Americans are Evangelicals or born-again Christians, i.e., people who can give a time and date when they were "born again" or had a transformative experience with Jesus — but are sometimes confused on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Obama's probably in this category, along with Bill Clinton.
Then there is the smaller category of "world view Christians," around 7 percent of the population — think Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson — because their faith comes with an accompanying worldview, the kind of stuff they read in books by authors like Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey. John, you own this group because they're not interested in personality — yours or Obama's — just voting records and overall philosophy.
First, if you do nothing else, fire up the Straight Talk Express or whatever it's called and get your tail to Colorado Springs. Can you really be dumb enough to have called James Dobson and asked him to come to your hotel room in Denver? Are you crazy? Would you call the pope and tell him you're going to be in Switzerland and would he mind meeting you at your chalet?
Evangelicals don't have popes; they have leaders with names like Dobson, Colson, Warren, Graham and Mohler. Unless you have a death wish, suck it up, fly to Colorado Springs and work out a mutual mea culpa ahead of time wherein you say you're sorry for the "agents of intolerance" thing and Dobson says he spoke too soon when he said he'd never vote for you. By the way, there's a way to do this without outraging your friends in the press: wrangle an invitation to be on Dobson's radio show. That way you're not going to beg, but rather to be a guest on his show — just as you would be on Leno or Letterman.
Let me be blunt with you: If you don't do this, you will lose the election. It's just that simple. Here's why:
I'll tell you what your paid consultants won't tell you: You're not a nice man. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Don't feel bad. The country is ready for a mean guy who will crack heads, get things done and ride off into the sunset (maybe after one term), and even Evangelicals understand that. You're the stepfather who joins the family after the nice dad dies, and sits the kids down and tells them that while you don't do hugs or "I love you's," you will put them through college if they live by your rules, don't do drugs and get good grades. That's what the country is ready to accept: a tough stepfather who takes care of the family, fulfills his obligations and keeps everybody safe.
Work with that reality. Don't fight it. And admit your faults readily. For the sake of the Evangelicals, own up to the dumping of your first wife. Lay your cards on the table. Invite a camera crew from the 700 Club to follow you and Cindy as you go and visit with your first wife and have a healing moment. Hey, it's an Oprah world, don't fight it.
Tell the Club's viewers not to try it at home and that God has forgiven you and taken your lousy behavior and turned it in to something good by giving you such great kids who have served their country and a wonderful girl that your wife insisted you adopt. They understand the concept of forgiveness, but forgiveness comes after repentance.
And while we're talking about your wife, tell her to take it down a notch. She is one of the most gorgeous creatures on God's green earth, but every time Hank in Little Rock or Jimmy in Greensboro sees her in her outfits, all they can think about are the times they were tempted to dump Helen and Suzy sitting on the couch next to them for a "Cindy" they met at work or on a business trip. A little less makeup and fewer form-fitting outfits will go a long way to tamp down the resentment from Jimmy and Hank.
As you reach out to Evangelicals, don't pander or linger too long or get bogged down in theology. You're not one of them, they get it. Don't get caught up in debates over salvation or the trinity or creationism, but you really should be able to point to a date when you converted to Christianity. Think hard and try to remember the date. In their gut they know you're not quite with them, and that you probably believe in evolution, but they'll still vote for you if you don't shove it in their face. Just say you leave that stuff to your pastor and that your focus is on being President, but that you'll have an open door to their leaders. It's enough that you're with them on abortion and are unembarrassed to use the word "unborn." That's your secret password with them.
A word about Iraq: Even Evangelicals are tired of this war. Acknowledge this reality. Turn Obama's strategy on its head: Tell them that in the long run you will get their boys and girls home sooner than he will because he'll do the herky-jerky-pulling-out-too-quickly and then have to go back in when humanitarian crises ensue. Remind them that you're a military guy — you know how to break things, kill people and get out as quickly as possible, and that that's what you're going to do. Explain the 100-year thing as military bases that will stabilize oil prices, not a constant fighting presence. Remember, even conservative Christians get tired of long wars, and they want to get out. Make them as well as independents think that you're the man to get the boys home sooner.
You're as old as the hills; use it to your advantage. Remind young and old in subtle ways that this is your last shot and they can always vote for Obama another time in the next 30 years. Tell them Bible stories about really old guys who did great things — like Abraham and Moses. Quote Reagan's line to Mondale. You're coming in to fix the mistakes of two young, callow men — Bush and Clinton — who were inexperienced and got us into messes. No more youngsters; it's time for the old cranky guy to come in and clean things up.
As for a veep, you've been around long enough to know the drill: Conservatives hate you, and that loathing seeps down to their cousins, the Evangelicals. If you pick a pro-choicer like Tom Ridge or Mike Bloomberg, you're finished and you will most certainly lose. Go young and go conservative and Christian and try to pick up a state while you're at it. Bobby Jindal is a little young, but he's a devout Catholic who once wrote about participating in an exorcism, plus he's wonkish enough to dispel the age issue. Palin is great, but doesn't really bring a needed state and isn't a national figure. Mitt might be a pain to have to deal with, but he does bring Michigan and maybe Massachusetts, as well as a boatload of Mormon money, and though Evangelicals don't want him for president, they might be OK with Veep, figuring they can refuse to let him pass Go in eight years. Huckabee might be a good choice — the Evangelicals love him, and he can nail down the South for you, but can you live with him for eight years? Thune is a devout Christian who went to college in LA and has ties there and may help you carry California, and he's pure gold to all the guys who hate you on the right. He's probably your best bet. Let him spend the entire campaign shoring up your base and grabbing California, while you do your maverick stuff and get the independents.
Finally, look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: Do I really want to win? If you do, then get tough. I think you have it in you. Bush 41 didn't. Dole didn't. Neither really wanted to do what it took to win. Do you? If so, get tough. When you see Obama's face, pretend you're back in that cell in Nam and he's one of your guards. Stay far away from anything that could be perceived as racism; it's wrong and you don't need it.
He's given you a different kind of gift. He's a foreigner. With all due respect to Hawaii, where I love to vacation, growing up in an apartment in Honolulu, not to mention Southeast Asia, ain't the heartland of America. That's why he talks about the price of arugula at Whole Foods, thinks there are 57 states, forgets to salute the flag and has a problem with the flag pin. It not that he's not patriotic, it's that he's more a citizen of the world than of America.
Tell the American people that he has everything you'd want in a U.N. ambassador — and that you will honor him in defeat by appointing him to that post. Relentlessly attack him as not being a product of the heartland and you will trouble its voters enough to pass him by — at least this time.
You win by 5, but remember: Only if you go to Colorado Springs.