“How will they govern if elected?” That is the question with which I ended my last column and it is perhaps the only question that any of us should ask throughout the process of selecting the next President of the United States or any elected official. The world is changing too quickly and our politics is too deeply divided and volatile for the candidates’ answers to any other issue related questions to remain the same and to matter long enough to make a difference. The reason for the paramount importance of this question was illustrated by the political theater which was staged at the debates, the hype leading up to those events and the spin following them.
“How the candidates would govern?” was neither asked nor answered in any of the debates. Nor has this question been addressed by either campaign, directly or even indirectly. Unfortunately, the omission is not inadvertent. The reality is that in our unique American brand of representative democracy, it is clear, particularly to the political professionals that are hired to run campaigns by candidates who can afford them, that the skill-set required to govern effectively is very different that the skill-set necessary to get elected. That is because as columnist, George F. Will has noted, “Democracy represents the public’s preferences which are mutable, but also represents human nature, which is constant.”
So what we get when we watch the debates is a visual and audio accompanying it which resembles some of my childhood arguments with my little brother. For example – The generic; “That’s not true – Yes it is – No it isn’t exchange, or my favorites: Obama;
“The math doesn’t add up” – “Romney: Of course it adds up, I’ve been balancing budgets all my life” (as if his experience dictates the math) and Paul Ryan; “It’s worked before”. Joe Biden; (with a big unexplainable grin) “It’s never been tried before”; Paul Ryan – “Yes it has” – Joe Biden: “No it hasn’t”. Of course most viewers did not know exactly what “it” was or is.
We also witness the drama to the extent that the candidates can pull it off as it has been scripted for them. Examples include President Obama’s planned, but probably sincere, outrage at Governor Romney’s criticism of him and his administration for ostensibly ignoring or at least not responding fast enough to the requests for additional security for the consulate at Bengazi, Libya. Romney’s criticism implicitly suggested, without any evidence to support it, that responding more positively and quicker, would have prevented the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and his security detail. Obama’s outrage was credible for among other reasons because of the words used to convey it including that “These people were our people – we knew them and their families. It’s (your criticism) offensive”.
The response by the media to this charade is to come behind the candidates and their spin-doctors with “fact checkers” and “talking heads” who are either self- proclaimed partisans themselves of self-appointed political theater critics whose focus and emphasis is on the candidates’ performance rather than the substance of their positions. More importantly, there is no analysis or even credible commentary on the process itself and the danger of letting political theater drive the development and implementation of public policy.
The development of public policy and its implementation is, in fact, the act of governance. It should be fact-based. The analysis of those facts should be the product of free and open albeit confidential discussion by the official charged with making the decision with wise women and men advisors who have the requisite level of personal confidence, economic security, independence, integrity and strength necessary to speak the truth to power. These advisors hopefully are willing to confront their own and their leader’s mistakes, as well as counsel the leader whom they are advising to avoid repeating those mistakes which he or she has made in the past.
Who those advisors are should change over time and depending on the issue or policy under consideration. New ideas and different advisors should be welcomed and in no way limited, except by the tests of truth, time and application to reality. Ideology, race, color, gender and the political party affiliation of those advisors should not cloud or limit their perception of reality. It should also not constrain their advice as to how their leader can effectively exercise political judgment to change that reality, if that is necessary.
With this diversity of advice and advisors, wise political leaders will measurably reduce the chances of their confusing the world as it is with the world as they or their handlers or advisors might wish it to be. They also will not assume their worldview is presumptively correct and therefore, not to be questioned. Wise leaders will, therefore, welcome candor and clarity.
When that candor and the resultant clarity is forthcoming, wise leaders will recognize, as did Machiavelli, that to be effective political judgment must follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life. Former Harvard Professor and writer for the New York Times, Michael Ignatieff’s writing on this subject illustrates several of these principles. As Ignatieff points out, in private life you take attacks personally. In contrast, the conventional wisdom is that “nothing is personal in politics because politics is theater”.
This institutionalized hypocrisy is generally not practiced in private life. There we mean what we say and say what we mean. However, in private life, we put much less emphasis on words than on what we mean by them. There is clearly no such courtesy in politics. In public life, language is a weapon of war and is deployed in a way that engenders radical distrust of elected politicians and even appointed public servants. Witness the Republican attack on United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s words in the immediate aftermath of The Libyan Tragedy, as well as the impulsive, albeit ill-informed and incorrect attack by Governor Romney which was “fact checked” on the spot by Debate Moderator Candy Crowley, on President Obama’s not saying the right words in The Rose Garden after the attack on the Libyan Embassy. The attack on the famous “47%” remarks to wealthy donors by Mitt Romney is yet another illustration that what matters in politics is the words that were spoken, not what those words meant.
There is, however, starting to be an identifiable adverse reaction by ordinary citizens to “politics as theater”. That reaction started in the 2008 presidential campaign and was first noticed and monitored by the political strategists for both parties that year. It was and continues to be pandered to this year in the form of their scripted messages of “Change”. Of course, since the message of “Change” is still scripted, it is still theater even if the script calls for the candidate to deny that fact.
The “Change” which both President Obama and Governor Romney are peddling is of course, defined completely differently because these two men are appealing to different base constituencies which are in many respects, conflicted both externally and to some extent internally. These base constituencies, notwithstanding their internal conflicts control the parameters of the candidates’ positions on issues in campaigns, and if allowed to, will limit their ability to govern effectively if elected.
Politics in 2012 is still Theater. Campaigns are supposed to be the warm-up for the final act and responsibility of governance. But what we have learned is that campaigns and debates don’t help us measure a candidate’s ability to exercise good judgment. Campaigns and debates test a candidate’s charm, stamina, money-raising ability and rhetorical powers. They do not test their leadership skills, judgment and coolness under fire. We will, however, observe those skills shortly after the election, no matter who wins, because at that time the country’s political class will be required to confront the reality of the fiscal cliff which they created. They will then decide whether to jump off that cliff with their eyes open or with ideological blinders on. The curtain will then come down or be raised up on our latest political theatrical production.