Ruth Ann Dailey (Columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette): IT'S THAT MOMENT AGAIN IN AMERICA

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September 21, 2015

  Ruth Ann Dailey

Ruth Ann Dailey

Ruth Ann Dailey                             

Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan’s question echoed through the 1980 political season. No, the voters decided.

They gave him the chance to answer his own question in 1984, when his legendary re-election campaign ad proclaimed, “It’s morning again in America.”

Mr. Reagan’s opponents derided him as nothing but image — Hollywood’s camera-ready faux-cowboy — but the substance and nuance of his handwritten speeches aslabor leader, corporate spokesman and governor were real. They explain how image and message united to produce a transformative presidency.

Now everyone wants to be Mr. Reagan — not just today’s Republican hopefuls, but even, famously, President Barack Obama.

Which candidate’s message and image fit this moment? And how would we assess the unique moment we’re in?

When Mr. Reagan ran in 1980, “stagflation” tormented Americans at home and the Iran hostage crisis humiliated us abroad. The prior decade had battered us with Vietnam, Watergate and a prolonged energy crisis.

Although Jimmy Carter, a down-home ingenue from Georgia, had seemed the antidote to our woes in 1976, by 1980 Mr. Reagan was able to ask the electorate his famous question.

That was the moment and the message. But the image? Mr. Reagan’s confidence and sunny optimism — so different from what was by then Mr. Carter’s inept and sour persona — drew so broadly that a whole new demographic, “Reagan Democrats,” was born.

And now? The new millennium has been a whipsaw. George W. Bush’s presidency, bookended by both the tech bubble and real-estate bubble’s bursting and subsequent recessions, was just so much rubble for a stunning newcomer to sweep away. His America-centric resolve, so resonant in the post-9/1 years, gave way to Mr. Obama’s cooler, internationalist approach.

But seven years later, the economy has not recovered, millions of adults have involuntarily and permanently left the workforce and experts worry we’re on the brink of another tech-bubble bust. While militant Islam flays the Middle East, Mr. Obama finagles the Iran treaty without a congressional majority.

We have bounced from Mr. Bush to Mr. Obama, political and personal polar opposites, with no appreciable benefit. We are divided and bitter. Who has the right message and image for this fraught moment?

Hillary Rodham Clinton? She could be the George H.W. Bush to Mr. Obama’s Mr. Reagan — a third term for the Democratic Party, plus another historic “first” for the Democrats — except the America she would inherit is nothing like the prosperous, optimistic country Mr. Reagan exited.

And her image as an inveterate liar and greed-head doesn’t fit our vision of ourselves. Nothing in her resonates with our better nature or aspirations.

Joe Biden? He has plenty of the likability Mrs. Clinton lacks, but there’s nothing in his professional-politician story that speaks to this historical moment. That changes with Sen. Elizabeth Warren as his running mate; she delivers the female “first” as veep, and intellectual chops to boot.

Bernie Sanders is the Mike Huckabee of the left: He appeals to true believers and has consistency and integrity, but outside party primaries, his message will be rejected.

And what of the Republicans? There are still too many candidates to do them all justice here, but a few stand out:

Donald Trump, the front-runner, is no Republican. He’s the sole member of the Donald Trump Party, and his message is, basically, “You need Donald Trump.”

While his inherited real estate empire does not inspire, his swagger heartens voters who dislike political correctness at home and (shades of the Carter era) weakness abroad. The image speaks to the moment, but it’s paper thin.

Right behind him is Ben Carson, the brilliant neurosurgeon who is antidote to both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama. Unlike them, he is no narcissist, and his enormous personal achievements capture the quintessential American narrative of opportunity for all.

He can surprise voters — opposition to the Iraq War, for instance — but his conservative message of rebuilding a society that honors and rewards hard work and integrity resonates deeply in an era of entitlement and ever-expanding government.

Carly Fiorina’s free-market, pro-life conservatism and her secretary-to-CEO story rallies the Republican base. As a woman, she could have game-changing bipartisan appeal.

Her lack of political experience — like Mr. Carson’s — might trouble some voters, but it shouldn’t. We are ending eight years led by a president whose political career was preceded by nothing but a short stint as a law professor.

Image, message and moment. We don’t get to choose this moment, but we choose who shapes the next one.

Ruth Ann Dailey: