In the wake of Scott Brown's landscape changing win in Massachusetts, the clear message to Republicans is "keep on truckin'." As the Boston Globe reports, the green GMC Canyon truck - what the paper deemed Brown's "regular-guy-mobile" featured so prominently in his campaign - is experiencing "a surge of interest" at Bay State dealerships. All of which suggests that with his pickup truck Scott Brown like Fred Thompson before him has perfected the Republican art of ersatz authenticity.
"My name is Scott Brown and I'm running for the United States Senate. This is my truck. I put a lot of miles on it during this campaign.
Wherever I go people tell me they're concerned about the path our country is on. Spending is out of control. Government keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's time for a new direction.
"I love this old truck. It's brought me closer to the people of this state. And I want to speak for them as their next United States Senator."
If that road to office sounds familiar, it should. After all, actor and long-time lobbyist Fred Thompson used it to drive his leased red pickup into the Senate in 1994.
As the New Republic recalled in 2007 while musing about a potential Thompson run for the White House:
By the time Fred Thompson decides whether or not to join the presidential fray, you will have heard the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times. The truck in question is a 1990 Chevy, which the famed statesman-thespian rented during his maiden Senate campaign in 1994. The idea was that Thompson would dress up in blue jeans and shabby boots and drive himself to campaign events around Tennessee. Upon arriving, he'd mount the bed of the truck and launch into a homespun riff on the virtues of citizen-legislators and the perils of Washington insider-ism. For good measure, he'd refer to himself as "Ol' Fred" and the Chevy as "this ol' baby."
There was no real reason to think the tactic would work. Thompson's own campaign manager dismissed it as "gimmicky and hokey." Thompson, after all, had spent the previous two decades as a well-paid Washington lobbyist and sometime screen actor. He was about as close to being a salt-of-the-earth Southerner as Truman Capote, and it was a stretch to think average Tennesseans wouldn't pick up on the dissonance. Yet the gambit proved wildly successful. Thompson was down big to Democrat Jim Cooper when he initialed his car-rental agreement. He went on to win the race with more than 60 percent of the vote.
In 1996, the Washington Monthly's Michelle Cottle ("Another Beltway Bubba?") concluded that "with his pickup truck, his blue jeans, and his deep, friendly drawl, Thompson has cultivated the perfect political image for today's anti-Washington climate."
Cottle also described how Thompson's campaign facade worked:
Finishing his talk, Thompson shakes a few hands, then walks out with the rest of the crowd to the red pickup truck he made famous during his 1994 Senate campaign. My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan. He gives my friend a slight nod as he drives past. Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school's small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer.
Going back to his 1999 New Republic cover piece about George W. Bush ("Why America Loves Stupid Candidates"), Jonathan Chait argued that "because voters seem to be in a mood to prize personal authenticity over ideas, candidates see some advantage in presenting themselves as, if not flat-out stupid, at least aggressively nonintellectual." Later, in his 2007 book The Big Con, Chait described how Republicans consistently win elections despite almost universal disdain for their policies among the American people. In a nutshell, Chait argues that Republicans must convert elections into contests of "character" because they generally can't win on issues. While their man, be it George W. Bush or John McCain, is the "authentic" guy you'd "like to have a beer with," the GOP drives the media conventional wisdom that paints the likes of Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama as effete, out-of-touch elitists whose positions change with the wind:
"Media outlets functionally affiliated with the Republican Party have been able to create news that makes its way into the nonpartisan media. It is a kind of machine that manufactures images of character.
The Republicans' seminal insight was that the random process by which small events come to wield great symbolic insight into the character of presidential candidates didn't have to be random. It was possible to prime the pump, in a way." (p.169)
Just how successful these efforts can be was reflected in a stunning piece by Jonathan Capehart in Friday's Washington Post. Amazingly, for Capehart, the model for Scott Brown's pickup truck campaign wasn't Fred Thompson, but the late grassroots progressive Senator Paul Wellstone. In "Scott Brown's Paul Wellstone Strategy," Capeheart bought Brown's faux populism hook, line and sinker:
The late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), my professor at Carleton College, rolled into the U.S. Senate in 1990 aboard a beat up green school bus. He traveled all over the Land of 10,000 Lakes securing the votes of Minnesotans. And just as Brown did 20 years later, Wellstone shocked the political establishment with a come-from-out-of-nowhere victory. Wellstone and his wife were killed while campaigning for reelection when their plane crashed in 2002.
So, the enduring political lesson in the Brown-Wellstone model is this: work hard for every vote and do so from the green vehicle of your choice.
Of course, well-to-do Republican candidates long ago learned the real enduring political lesson.
Keep on truckin'.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)