In some presidential years, like 2008, both parties have competitive primary contests in play. That means politically interested Democrats and Republicans are engaged. That’s not the case this year and so roughly half of us, if we are paying attention at all, are mere observers not participants. I am one of those onlookers.
Some people, including pundits on the right, have painted what has unfolded over the last few months as something absurd, a kind of show business comedy act typified early on by the likes of Herman Cain and The Donald. Some Democrats watch from the bleachers with a sense of satisfaction, if not outright glee. They believe the mud slinging is further weakening an already weak field and thus will help ensure the President’s reelection. Perhaps that’s true, but a word of caution is in order. Tough primaries, as has been pointed out by others, usually make the victor a better candidate than he or she might otherwise have been. Both Obama and Clinton were far more potent at the end than was the case when they started out. The long competitive challenge may have given the president the edge four years ago. Romney seems to be benefiting from the battle.
I have a somewhat different take on it all. By way of disclosure, let me confess that I have not watched a single Republican debate. Sue me; I just couldn’t get myself to do it. Of course I have read a range of press reports and have heard snippets. One would have to be totally deaf and blind, especially if you are an active consumer of news, not to have seen and read enough about the goings on to have an impression of the candidates. Besides, all of the four men left standing have a history and certainly with the former Speaker of the House, one that stands out in sharp relief.
What strikes me about this class of 2012 is not that they seem comic, but that somehow each of them, most especially the two top contenders, seems so flawed. You would think that, as an Obama supporter, this would make me happy, but in some profound way it does just the opposite. What’s up for grabs this fall is the presidency of the United States; an office that carries tremendous power not to mention that it is the face of government to the nation and to the world at large. Our leader. The idea that one of these men would have even a remote chance of taking the oath next January 21 — and it’s more than remote — is disconcerting to say the least.
Why do I see these contenders as flawed? Let’s start with Governor Romney, still presumed to be the front-runner and most likely nominee. In some ways Mitt reminds me most of George H.W. Bush. His problem is not so much that he has difficulty connecting with voters, which he does, but that somehow he is totally out of touch. Romney, like many people born rich — yes I know he claims to be self-made — somehow lives on a different planet than the one inhabited by most of us. Bush’s revealing moment was when a supermarket checkout flummoxed him or when he insensitively went out on his gas-guzzling cigarette boat during a time of shortages. John Kerry had similar disconnect problems — his mother was a member of the wealthy Forbes family. Romney has consistently exhibited a tin ear to how his personal story has nothing in common, zero, with those in what is now called the 99%. Even within his 1% there is a difference between being born into wealth and having become wealthy. His being out of touch manifests itself in comments like his being currently unemployed or that he somehow started at the bottom, worried about getting a pink slip. Being unemployed when you’re drawing what we now know is $22 Million plus a year is vastly different from being out of work and collecting (if so fortunate) less than subsistence wage unemployment checks. And the idea that being the son of a former Automotive CEO and ex-governor doesn’t give you a substantial leg up in the business world or that you didn’t benefit from the kind of safety net unavailable to most Americans is laughable. But let’s understand, it’s not so much the wealth that counts here; it is rather the out-of-touch tin ear. FDR came from wealth and lived accordingly, but somehow he viscerally understood that his situation was not comparable to most others. So he focused on their challenges, not his, and what he had and where he came from was never an issue even in depression torn America.
Romney has another flaw, one that might not have been seen as such during another time. Taking him at his word now, his wealth comes not from inheritance but from his work. To paraphrase what the late John Houseman once sonorously intoned for a Smith Barney commercial, he did it in the old fashioned way, he earned it. The problem is that, unlike his father who made his money from manufacturing cars, Romney Junior’s fortune derives from financial engineering. While many of the companies that Bain Capital bought were making things, for example Sealy mattresses, they were simply short-term vehicles for enhancing investor wealth. It is the old idea of buy low; sell high — in this case at often unimaginable returns, made in relatively short order. Whatever management may have been involved, it was of the interim kind (done by others, not Romney) and aimed solely at increasing shareholder (Bain’s and their investor’s) value. In an earlier economic context this might not be a problem, might not be seen as a flaw. But it is exactly financial engineering that helped produce the collapse from which we have yet to recover. Romney went on the offensive in a recent debate contending, I’m proud of being successful; I'm proud of being in the free-enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I'm not going to run from that. Perhaps so, especially the job creating claim, but no matter how many have been created (the subject of some dispute) none of those new workers, nor those already employed by the companies bought and sold made out like Romney and his partners (some might say, like bandits).
Finally there is the matter of his 13.9% tax rate. I'm proud of the taxes I pay, Romney asserted during that debate. My taxes plus my charitable contributions this year, 2011, will be about 40%. Come again? The implication here is that (tax deductible) donations should be lumped in with taxes. If that isn’t financial engineering at its most disingenuous self, I don’t know what is. Does Mr. Romney think us all stupid? Beyond being insulting, it again manifests that tin ear, this time combined with some snake oil selling.
Newt Gingrich’s flaws are manifold. We may hold politicians in very low esteem, but few, if any, can match him in being callously opportunistic and blatantly insincere. If you don’t trust me on that, do a Google search of his career record. Politicians all suffer from some degree of inflated ego disease, but Newt clearly has a terminal case. There are few great figures in history to whom he has not compared himself; often intimating that he may be the better of the two. Boasts like this often are symptoms of an underlying, and often severe, insecurity, but let’s leave that to accredited professionals.
No flaw in Gingrich is greater than in his fundamental (a word he likes) character. Now let me preface that assessment by saying I don’t think either the government or its citizens belong in any one’s private life or bedroom. We may not personally approve of marital infidelity (or conversely be bothered by it), but unless it impacts on our own lives, we should have the humility to hold judgment — the glass house principle. The reason that Newt’s history is relevant here is that he holds himself out as such a virtuous soul, the now devout repentant sinner. It is he, not any of us, who introduced that claim into the campaign. Remember he was making hay with Callista (and far more seriously) while prosecuting Bill Clinton for Monica. I could care less about either of their sex lives, but do care about the hypocrisy in putting us all through that. When it comes to family values, Romney beats Gingrich hands down, yes Gail Collins even if he tied the family dog to the roof of his car on a trip to Canada.
Gingrich’s flaw is one shared by his many devout followers, not to mention the Church to which he now belongs. These are people who insist that we all should be bound by their religious rules and mores. The Roman Church is currently going ballistic that the new healthcare provisions mandating the benefit of insurance coverage for contraception should apply to the many non-Catholics in their employ. At the same time, they avert their eyes when it comes to Gingrich’s infidelity. The Catholic Church’s mandate against divorce doesn’t apply to him of course since his earlier marriages were consecrated elsewhere and not recognized as valid. In the same inconsistent vein they have recently welcomed a bunch of married (formerly Episcopal) priests and they have always provided annulments for the right (often rich contributor) members. This shared flaw in Gingrich and his religious right supporters is just another reason that 25% of America’s young have moved beyond religion. It’s a real turnoff, one that, fairly or not, tarnishes even those religions who don’t share their invasive attitude or beliefs.
I said earlier that the state of the Republican contest doesn’t make me happy. I think that the Democrats and President Obama, while far from perfect, have things just about right. Should more be done about housing, do we still need universal health care and should those responsible for our current economic woes be at least put before the bar of justice? Absolutely. But I do believe in an activist government. Far greater efficiency may be in order, but unlike with science, less is not more. Look at the condition of our roads and the lack of high-speed rail to mention just two. By the same token, Republicans who believe in more limited government should be able to make their case with less hyperbole and by more substantive representatives. No one has cornered the market on absolute truth. More to the point we all deserve better when we go to the polls in November. With this crop, we’ll be disappointed.
On a personal note: Jesse J. Prinz’ very provocative and highly accessible book Beyond Human Nature (Allen Lane in the UK and forthcoming in the US) has just been published and will be available on Kindle February 2nd.