Twelve years ago, I voted for Ralph Nader for president. I did so not because I particularly wanted him to be president, and certainly not because I thought he ever would be, but because I wanted him to reach 2% of the popular vote, which would have made the Green Party eligible for the presidential debates in 2004. So young and naive I was, hoping to get more voices into the national debate!
Anyway, I voted for Nader but I was fervently rooting for Al Gore, and since I lived in deep-blue California at the time, I didn’t have to worry about that contradiction throwing the election to Bush. But then the Florida recounts happened, Bush ended up on top, and though it wasn’t the result I wanted to see, I couldn’t help feeling like he won it fair and square.
I use “fair and square” euphemistically, of course, because the Bush campaign used every dirty, dishonest trick in the book, and came up with a few new ones, to win Florida (or, more accurately, to prevent Gore from winning it). But it was a FIGHT, and Bush and his campaign won it.
The point is: the 2000 recount was as good a simulated surprise crisis as a non-incumbent presidential candidate is ever likely to see, and it showed what kind of organizations the candidates were running. Gore’s was sloppy, disorganized, and constantly crying foul about the Bush team’s tactics. The Bush campaign mobilized immediately, sent armies of people to Florida to influence the outcome, and put its various friends in high places to work. It wasn’t pretty, but when push came to shove, Bush had the better-run organization, and he won.
A presidential campaign is long, it’s repetitive, and it’s boring, but it’s also a pretty good Nerf version of the presidency — you can take it out and throw it around without really breaking anything. The candidates are under unbelievable pressure each and every day, every word they say is scrutinized and spun one way or another, and they sit at the head of a big organization, and they’re being pulled in every direction by a million interested parties. It’s ridiculous, it’s antiquated, it’s terribly annoying if you pay more than passing attention to it, but it’s also the best indicator there is of what kind of president that candidate will turn out to be.
In Bush’s case, the response to the recount situation was to immediately get in gear and throw everything he had at the problem, ethics and etiquette be damned. I admit I remember feeling in the numb first hours after the World Trade Center fell that maybe that was the right kind of guy to have in office for the situation. (It turned out to be exactly the wrong kind of guy for the situation, but hey, those were emotional times.)
Four years later, I desperately wanted John Kerry to beat Bush, based almost entirely on Bush’s performance (principally his incomprehensible choice to invade and occupy a country that hadn’t attacked us) and almost not at all based on any particular merit of Kerry’s — though, “not being Bush” was a pretty huge merit all by itself. The occupation of Iraq was not going well (to put it mildly) and it seemed that the war hero would be able to beat the deserter in a walk.
So, though I was disappointed that Bush won re-election, the fact that he did so by somehow making Kerry’s sterling military record into a liability made me more sad that Bush would continue to be president than that Kerry wouldn’t be. How could we expect Kerry to do anything well as president when he couldn’t even defend his own spotless combat history?
I didn’t have any particular animosity or dislike of John McCain when he began the 2008 campaign — in fact, I might well have voted for him in 2000 if he’d been the nominee instead of Bush. I liked him, bought into all that “Straight Talk Express” stuff, and though eight years of the Bush Administration (and the Congress that enabled it) more than soured me on the idea of voting for any Republican that year, even one I liked, I still had a warm spot for McCain.
But when his campaign advisers shot down his out-of-the-box, Mavericky idea of making left-leaning Independent Joe Lieberman his running mate and opted instead for a pretty face with an empty head, it indicated that this guy was not driven by anything but winning, and that he was not personally in control of his own campaign — a bad omen for how effectively he’d actually stand up to his party, which was his main selling point, once in office. Then the banks collapsed, and he almost literally went crazy, first suspending his campaign (whatever that actually means) to go assist in the crisis, and then not actually doing anything once he got there. I was never going to vote for him, but I was amazed that anyone did after all that. Who would trust this guy in a crisis?
It will come as little surprise that I am not going to be voting for Mitt Romney in November, and I won’t pretend that his weird, alien-impersonating-a-human bearing, his totally vague/secret policy prescriptions, his total fealty to the Israeli Prime Minister (see also: Iran), his seeming inability to relate to anyone not from his country club, or his apparent willingness to say absolutely anything to anyone if he thinks it will net him one more vote aren’t huge factors in that. By the same token, I realize that the people who are going to vote for him are doing so because of their total opposition to the (largely imaginary) policies of the president.
But when candidates lay out their policies, it’s like they’re showing you their Christmas list, and it’s important to remember they’re not going to get all the presents they want. It’s not like Obama gets to say “from now on rich people will literally carry a poor person on their back with a government-mandated harness” or Romney gets to say “from now on poor people will be boiled into heating oil to warm my guest bathroom”) and BOOM, that’s suddenly the law of the land. Whoever wins, he’ll have to deal with an at least half hostile Congress, and he’ll be lucky to get even one of his initiatives enacted. Or had you not noticed the total gridlock in Congress? We’re not voting for a demigod, we’re voting for an executive to either veto or sign the bills Congress doesn’t pass.
As we learned (but forgot with alarming speed) on 9/11, and then learned again with Hurricane Katrina (and forgot again, even faster), the presidency is about more than policies and the officeholder’s preferred top tax rate. Shit happens! And when it does, it’s more than a little helpful to have someone in charge who can keep a cool head, who can adapt to swiftly changing events, who’s, you know, competent. And as in all the previous campaigns I mentioned, this one has been more than a little telling about what kind of president Mitt Romney would be.
When he went to London before the Summer Olympics and suggested that the UK may not be fully prepared to host the games, thus insulting America’s closest global ally, he showed that he may not be cut out for diplomacy with, say, Vladimir Putin.
When he tried to bet fellow primary contender Rick Perry $10,000 on stage during a debate, he showed that he fundamentally does not understand most people’s relationship to that sum of money, and that he has very poor impulse control.
When he refused to release his tax returns, he showed that his administration will very likely be secretive about even the most mundane matters, which will stir up controversy when he’s in office even if everything he does is legal and morally upright.
His response to the recent attacks in Benghazi, Libya was especially telling. To grossly oversimplify the story: Muslim [protestors in Libya and Egypt were moved to violence by an awfully ungallant, video — a video whose production values make me feel pretty good about my own efforts in the (secular) video field, not as good about the traffic they get — about their prophet. The local U.S. embassy, anticipating the imminent violence, distanced the U.S. government from the video and its extra-crappity worldview, but the protesters went ahead and rioted and ended up killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Romney’s response was to rush in front of cameras and accuse the president of treason, for having sympathized with the attackers (his interpretation of the embassy statement condemning the wanton slur on the Muslim religion). Upon learning (or being reminded?) that the embassy’s statement had come before the violence and was totally benign, Romney doubled down and spun his own attacks as a defense of the video author’s First Amendment rights.
This was a fascinating little preview of a Romney Administration: when a crisis occurs, react immediately in the manner most politically expedient, before getting the actual facts. If actual facts don’t support your course of action, spin the actual facts. If called out on an error, double down, change the subject, do your best impression of Pee-wee Herman:
We spent the 2000’s with that kind of beast lumbering around the White House and he wrecked all the china (and, ironically, fed the shards to China). Do we really want that again? Romney voters: Really? You’d really rather have another shoot-first lunatic running around the Oval than let Obama propose a three-percentage point increase on your taxes that will never pass the Congress anyway?
I also found Romney’s recently leaked “47%” comments revealing, but not because I think he was explicitly writing off 47% of Americans, except as potential Romney voters. The Democrats are getting a little carried away (though they’re certainly not wrong to run as far with this ball as they can — god knows Romney would if the roles were reversed). He was talking about campaign strategy.
But it still bothers me because in the age of the permanent campaign, when a president’s every thought, word, and deed is weighed against its future resonance with voters, there’s no effective difference between ignoring half of Americans in your campaign and ignoring them in your administration.
The other thing that bothers me about it is that it got videotaped at all. What kind of security is the Romney campaign using? If they can’t lock down a McMansion in Boca Raton how are they going to hold down the White House? This guy’s gonna get shot quicker than McKinley and then we’ll be stuck with Paul Ryan, who’s so stiff and unconvincing he makes Romney look like Gene Hackman.
Bottom line: it’s hard to run for president, probably about 60% as hard as it is to actually be president. Some people can’t really do it without wigging out a little, and I think when someone tells us with their actions, in flashing red letters, that they get frazzled under pressure, maybe we should take that information to heart.