Kelly Clarkson Sings Conservatives' Blues for2012: Amity Shlaes

Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) — Every campaign has its song. That song isn't always the one the candidate chooses. In 2008, John McCain revealed that he liked "Dancing Queen" by Abba. The senator's staffers allowed that the theme of "Rocky" might also suit the pugnacious one.

But the McCain campaign track of 2008 should probably have been "Love Song" by Sara Bareilles. As in "Not going to write you a ..." McCain wanted voters. They just didn't want McCain back. Finally, they told him so.

The 2012 race is doing its predecessors one better. Republicans are finding themselves with not just a song, but a singer: Kelly Clarkson. In 2002, Clarkson was one of the first to demonstrate the power of "American Idol," the musical equivalent of the Iowa caucuses, to make a nobody into a superstar. The song she performed on the show, "A Moment Like This," shot to No. 1 on the charts.

Clarkson is deservedly popular in families with preteens. But maybe she is also a Republican prophetess. Her songs seem to capture the dynamic of the party's struggles this campaign. And through her wide, glorious, three-octave range, Clarkson tells us this party is becoming perilously narrow.

On Twitter, Clarkson made clear her personal preference among the Republican field — Ron Paul — just a few days before Paul placed third in the Iowa caucuses. And her song "Breakaway," conveys why the Texas congressman is newly appealing to primary voters this time around.

"Breakaway" began its life humbly, as a soundtrack song for "Princess Diaries II: Royal Engagement," a preteen fantasy film that features the improbable sight of Julie Andrews snowboarding down a staircase on a mattress. But the song has power. And, like the libertarian Paul, fits the desperate mood of Republican voters dissatisfied with all that the party offers — whether that is tame updates of old entitlement policy or stale social conservatism.

"Grew up in a small town" — a very small town, where the Republican National Committee rules.

"And when the rain would fall down, I'd just stare out my window" — and hope to see something beyond anti-abortion posters.

"Want to feel the warm breeze, sleep under a palm tree, feel the rush of the ocean" — preferably in a state with medical marijuana.

"I'll make a wish, take a chance, make a change. And break away" — escape that Grand Old Party combo of social conservatism and tax credits.

Then there's Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All." That's Newt Gingrich. "Oh you think that you know me" — but maybe you don't. Newt's genius is that he knows a lot. But it's also a failing because he doesn't listen. That's what voters were saying when they turned away from him in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Finally, there's "Because of You," another of Clarkson's hits. It's supposedly about how divorcing parents permanently stunt the emotional lives of their offspring and terrify the kids through door slamming, pill popping, suitcase flinging and other marital histrionics.

Call me a family-dynamics imbecile. But having listened to Clarkson belt out "Because of You" approximately 120 times at the breakfast table, I will tell you that it isn't about families. It's about Mitt Romney. Or at least the party culture he personifies.

As recently as the 1990s, the Republican Party was capable of being a rough, joyous, go-over-the-waterfall-in-a-barrel sort of party. That started to shift to caution in the past decade. And now the prospect of four more years of President Barack Obama so panics the party leaders that they're losing their ability to frame an inspiring and radical conservative program.

Romney's positions are more a medley of talking points derived from opinion-poll research than a single philosophy. Romney, who has now won the first two contests in this election, is a walking warning to Republicans that they had better back meek, logical compromise policies. In other words, as a candidate, he plays to fear.

"Because of you ... I never stray too far from the sidewalk."

Romney's campaign pitch is that he should be elected because he's electable. Talk to donors, and you hear over and over again that they're getting behind Romney because they have to.

"Because of you ... I find it hard to trust, not only me, but everyone 'round me."

Especially, for conservatives, plausible candidates such as Jon Huntsman or Rick Perry or, until Iowa, Michele Bachmann. These candidates have strengths, such as knowledge of China (Huntsman) or wisdom on immigration (Perry). Rick Santorum makes the best case among them for not breaking away. But they aren't doing as well as they could be, merely because they aren't considered "safe."

Apparently, Republicans believe that if they don't pick Romney, and yesterday, we'll all go down in some kind of Democratic-Socialist apocalypse.

"Because of you ... I am afraid."

What happened to election year as sport?

Nothing wrong with Clarkson. The problem is with the Republicans' premature decision to confine the choice in this election to one between escapism (Paul) and fear (Romney). Whichever candidate wins the primary, he'll stand a better chance against Obama if he puts forward a multiple-octave program that reflects big conservative principles.

Because the irony about "safe" is that it often has a hard time winning general elections. Safe was the message of Bob Dole, the Kansas senator who opposed President Bill Clinton.

Nobody can remember his song.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2012 Bloomberg

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