A Culture Of Contempt For Politicians?

George Friedman of Stratfor Global Intelligence has an excellent article on presidential debates and gridlock in the nation’s capital; its well worth a read.

“The founders wouldn’t have minded this culture of contempt for politicians.”
Monday night’s presidential foreign policy debate probably won’t change the  opinion of many voters. Proponents of President Barack Obama are still convinced  that Mitt Romney is a fool and a liar. Proponents of former Gov. Romney have the  same view of the president.

Of course, this is normal in any American  presidential race. Along with the eternal conviction that the party in power  is destroying the country, we have regarded Abraham Lincoln, during the 1860  election, as a simple-minded country bumpkin with a touch of larceny; Franklin  Roosevelt as a rich dilettante and socialist; and Dwight Eisenhower as a  bumbling fool who is lazy and incapable of understanding the complexity of the  world — this about the man who, during World War II, led the most complex  military coalition on the planet to victory.

We like to think that our politics have never been less civil than they  are today. Given that Andrew Jackson’s wife was accused of being a  prostitute, Grover Cleveland was said to have illegitimate children and Lyndon  Johnson faced the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”  I will assert that the Obama-Romney campaign doesn’t even register on the  vilification scale.

The founders wouldn’t have minded this culture of contempt for politicians.  In founding the  republic, their fundamental fear was that the power of the state would usurp  the freedoms of the states and individuals. They purposefully created a  political regime so complex that it is, in its normal state, immobilized. They  would not have objected if professional politicians were also held in contempt  as an additional protection. Ironically, while the founders opposed both  political parties and professional politicians, preferring to imagine that  learned men take time from their daily lives to make the sacrifice of service,  many became full-time politicians and vilified one another. Thomas  Jefferson’s campaign said of John Adams that he had a “hideous hermaphroditical  character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness  and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ campaign stated that Jefferson was “a  mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw sired by a  Virginia mulatto father.” And Jefferson and Adams were friends. I would suggest  suspending the idea that we have never had so vicious a politics.

Let me move to a more radical thought. Both Mitt Romney and Barack  Obama are capable men, as well intentioned as ambitious men seeking power  can be. Just as I doubt that Jefferson and Adams were as stupid and malicious as  their campaigns tried to portray one another, the same can be said of Romney and  Obama. I am not suggesting for a moment that the circus of accusations stop,  however. To the contrary, seeing how one endures slander is an outstanding  measure of a leader’s character and an opportunity to learn how the candidate  will react to the sorts of unreasonable  and unfair conditions that the president is sure to encounter.

A president will face a world that does not wish the United States well in  all cases and an opposition that will try anything, fair or foul, to make the  president fail. A president who breaks down when he is mistreated — as Edmund  Muskie, a senator running for president in 1972, did over charges made against  his wife — is a non-starter. Muskie’s campaign immediately collapsed, as it  should have. A president who expects to be treated fairly is an immediate  liability.

The True Objective of Debates

A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy on  any complex matter in 90 seconds. The debates between Lincoln and Steven Douglas  did go far in that direction, but then it wasn’t on national television, and it  was for senator of Illinois, not the presidency. That left room for  contemplation. It should be remembered that prior to the Kennedy-Nixon race of  1960, there were no debates, partly because there was no television and partly,  perhaps, because the ability to debate was not seen as the appropriate measure  of a president.

Debates test one thing: the ability to quickly respond to questions of  numbing complexity that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put  a premium on being fast and clever but don’t say much about how smart a  candidate is. Nor are they meant to, in part because being smart, in an academic  sense, is not essential to be president — as many have demonstrated. At  their best, debates test a candidate’s coolness under pressure and ability to  articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while  convincing the viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.

That is, after all, what leadership is about. We have had enormously  intelligent presidents who simply couldn’t lead. Here, I think of Herbert Hoover  and Jimmy Carter, both of whom had substantial and demonstrable intellects but  neither of whom, when confronted by the disastrous, could rapidly contrive both  a response and a commanding and reassuring presence in public. In that sense,  their intellects betrayed them. Each wanted the right answer, when what was  needed was a fast one. Each was succeeded by someone who could provide a fast  answer. FDR’s famous first 100 days did not solve the Depression, but they did  give the sense that someone was in charge. FDR and Ronald Reagan could reassure  the country that they knew what they were doing while they rapidly tried things  that might work.

Therefore, the question of who won Monday’s debate is not one that a viewer  who spends his time focused on foreign policy can answer. The candidates weren’t  speaking to those who make their livings involved in or watching foreign  affairs. Nor can we possibly extract from the debate what either candidate  intends to do in foreign policy, because conveying that was not what they were  trying to do. They were trying to show how quickly and effectively they could  respond to the unexpected, and that they were leaders in the simplest sense of  being both likeable and commanding, which is the incredibly difficult  combination the republic demands of its presidents.

Technology’s Impact

It is important to remember that for most of our history there were no  televisions and no debates. Knowledge of the candidates filtered through  speeches and letters. The distance between the president and the public was even  greater than today. In a sense, the imperial presidency — the president as  first among equals of the three branches of government — really began with FDR,  who used radio brilliantly. But there were no debates or public press  conferences in which to challenge him.

The distance collapsed with television and rapid-fire interplays, yet at the  same time increased in another way, as the president became the most public  and pseudo-known character in government. I say pseudo-known because, in fact,  the president’s greatest skill lies in revealing himself selectively, in a way  and to the extent that it enhances his power.

What could be sensed in debates were things like meanness of spirit, ability  to listen, willingness to improvise and, ultimately, there was a chance to look  for humor and good will. There was also a danger. The debate put a premium on  articulateness, but it is not clear that the well-spoken candidate — or at  least the candidate who could speak most clearly most quickly — also thought  more clearly. There are many people who think clearly but speak slowly while  acting quickly. They are not meant for Bob Schieffer or Candy Crowley’s meat  grinder.

The point of this is to continue a previous argument I have been making. The  issues-based candidacy is a fallacy, especially because events determine the  issues, and the most important events, such as 9/11 and the  financial crash, are not always expected. Therefore, reality divides the  candidate’s policy papers from the candidate’s policies.

I am arguing that the subject of the debate and the specific answers in the  debate are doubly unimportant. First, the nature of these debates makes coherent  presentation impossible. Second, the stated policies, such as they are, have  little to do with the results of the debate. Nor will the better debater win.  The winner of the debate will be the one whose soul, when glimpsed, appears able  to withstand the burdens of the presidency. Romney’s surge had less to do with  Obama’s performance and more to do with what the viewer learned of  Romney.

This has always been what American presidential campaigns are about. All that  has happened is that television intensified it and the debate purified it. A  debate is a 90-minute opportunity to see a candidate under pressure. What  the viewer determines he saw will be critical.

I am also making a parallel argument that our perception of today’s political  campaigns as uniquely vicious is untrue. We have always been brutal to our  candidates, but this served a purpose. We may not know what his policy on trade  reform is, but we need to know what kind of person he is for the unexpected  issues that will come faster and be more deadly than any moderator’s questions.  I think this is the purpose debates serve. They are not some public policy  review but a dissection of the soul of someone who wants to be president. It is  not necessarily a good one, or always an accurate one. It is, however, why we  have them.

The question may come up as to who I think won the debate. My opinion on that  is no better than anyone else’s, nor, as I pointed out, do I think it really  matters. The winner of the debate may or may not have persuaded enough voters of  his virtue to be elected. But in the end, our response to the debate is  idiosyncratic. What moved me may not have moved others. After all, the country  appears divided down the middle on this election, so obviously we are seeing  different things. Therefore, who I think won the debate is as irrelevant as who  I think should be president. Besides, there are more important questions than  our own opinions on the candidates. For me, one of those is trying to understand  what we are doing when we elect a president.

Read more: The Purpose of Presidential Debates | Stratfor


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