Missing Mitt

Here’s a question for all you liberals out there:  Would you have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 if you knew it would’ve prevented the rise of Donald Trump in 2016?

This scenario is hardly an idle fantasy.  Romney was, in fact, 2012’s Republican nominee for president, and, for a time, he had a real shot of defeating Barack Obama in his pursuit of a second term.  Indeed, Romney spent most of October of that year either leading or tied in the polls—a fact long forgotten by history—and had he succeeded in becoming America’s 45th commander-in-chief, it stands to reason that a certain New York real estate developer would not have run against him four years down the road.

Certainly, the emerging conventional wisdom about Donald Trump is that he jumped into the 2016 race—and is now governing—as a direct (and plainly racist) reaction to a black man having run the country for the last eight years.  In effect, Obama’s Obama-ness is the greatest—and often only—determining factor in how Trump makes big decisions.

In the absence of a two-term black president—and in the presence of Romney, arguably the whitest man who’s ever lived—Trump would’ve had no immediate, burning incentive to toss his red “MAGA” hat into the ring—particularly not as a primary challenger to a sitting Republican president, a feat of audacity that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t pull off in 1976.

In short:  No Obama second term, no Trump.  So I ask again:  Is that a trade you’d be willing to make?

Having ruminated on this for some days, I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question, and I wouldn’t trust any liberal who claims he or she does.  We might agree that Obama was exceptional and Trump is an abomination, but we have yet to fully assimilate how completely—and ironically—the latter is a product of the former:  How, by twice electing President Obama, we were unwittingly planting the seeds of a backlash whose damage will be the work of generations to clean up.

Will it have been worth it in the end?  Is President Trump a fair price to pay for President Obama?  When we look back on this era many decades from now, will we conclude that the benefits of Obama’s administration outweighed the horrors of Trump’s?

At this highly tentative juncture, the answer for many Americans (including this one) is unambiguously “yes.”  As a longtime member of the LGBT club, my life is certainly more promising now than it was four (and eight) years ago—as, I would wager, are the lives of most other social and ethnic minorities whose rights Obama steadfastly defended, along with pretty much anyone who enjoys such amenities as affordable healthcare and breathable air.  Even setting aside the profound historical significance of a black family occupying the White House, the Obama presidency was a truly unique and productive epoch in our history—a veritable golden age of progressive policy initiatives—that every liberal in America should be proud to have voted into existence twice.

Against Obama’s undeniable record of accomplishment—despite the near-comical degree of opposition every step of the way—I have found myself grappling with perhaps the most surprising political revelation of the last four years:

Mitt Romney was not that bad of a guy, and probably wouldn’t have made that bad of a president.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it:  A reasonably successful former governor and businessman.  An intellectual sophisticate with an expansive vocabulary and two Harvard degrees.  A devoted husband and father without a whiff of personal scandal.  And perhaps most essential of all, given the times:  An even-tempered, rational empiricist who does not need a great struggle to see what is directly in front of his nose.

Say what you want about Romney—Lord knows I have—but as president he would not spend an entire week feuding with the wife of a fallen soldier.  He would not sully decades of friendship with key American allies by lambasting them at campaign rallies and on official Oval Office phone calls.  Nor, under any circumstances, would he put in a nice word for Nazis and Klansmen, nor conjure childish nicknames for every senator he doesn’t like and every journalist who asks him a probing question.

He would never do any of those things, because, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney is a well-adjusted adult who believes in liberal democratic norms and understands that the job of the president is to lead—and to lead by example.

To be clear:  I have not forgotten Romney’s many faults, and I still believe my vote for Obama in 2012 was the right one, given what we knew at the time.  I remember Romney’s appalling “faith speech” in 2007, in which he denounced secularism as antithetical to American values, when of course the exact opposite is the case.  I remember when he vowed to double the inmate population at Guantanamo Bay rather than shut the whole rotten place down.  And I certainly remember his knack for reversing virtually every major policy position he’d ever taken—almost always in the wrong direction—thereby feeding the assumption that his thirst for power overwhelmed any notion of honor or personal integrity.

And yet—having said all that—I’ve twice watched Greg Whiteley’s 2014 documentary Mitt, which follows Romney through both of his presidential campaigns, and I’ve twice been taken aback by the sheer whimsy, civility and introspectiveness of this most peculiar American political character.  (“I think I’m a flawed candidate,” he says at one point, surrounded by his entire family.)

What’s more, when it became evident, by late 2015, that Donald Trump posed a clear and present danger to the moral authority of the United States, Romney rose to the occasion like few Republicans have, even to this day.  His speech of March 3, 2016—in which he gingerly called Trump “a phony [and] a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers”—remains the most direct, lucid and amusing indictment of the now-president by any major political figure over the last two years.  (Despite Trump’s claims to superior intelligence, Romney quipped, “he is very, very not smart.”)

None of which is to say that a Romney presidency would’ve been a pleasant one for liberals to endure, and of course had he been elected in 2012—thus erasing Trump from the equation—we wouldn’t understand or appreciate how much trouble we’d saved ourselves four years into the future and beyond, what with the space-time continuum operating as it does.

In truth, we are still a long way from comprehending the nature of the beast America uncaged last November 8.  Being so early into Trump’s tenure, we do not yet know precisely how bad things will get—how deep into the barrel this White House is prepared to sink—and how long it’ll take to bind up the nation’s wounds when this nightmare is finally over.

My ongoing hope—somewhat borne out by history—is that the Trump era will be short, aberrational and ultimately washed away by future presidents.  After all, if Trump believes—with some justification—that he can reverse one signature Obama decision after another through executive action, there is little reason to doubt Trump’s Democratic successors can’t—and won’t—reverse all or most of his, particularly once the congressional balance of power shifts back in their favor.

Without question, there will be a lot more pain before we ever reach that point, and it’s probable that some of the rot that Trump’s behavior has wrought upon America’s body politic will prove, like Watergate, to be a permanent blot on the national character and the presidency itself.

Broadly-speaking, there is no silver lining to Donald Trump being president except for the fact that one day he won’t be.  And while humans do not yet possess the ability to go back in time to prevent Category 5 calamities like him, my little Romney thought experiment should serve as a reminder that public servants are not all created equal and that the best way to avoid a terrible presidential candidate in the future is to do everything in one’s power to elect someone else.

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How to Lose an Election

They say you learn more from defeat than from victory.  Now that Donald Trump is (probably) about to lose the biggest, loudest contest of his life—and has insinuated that he won’t accept unfavorable results—I would recommend two recent documentaries that show, respectively, how losing should and should not be done.

The movies are Mitt and Weiner.  Released just two years apart (both debuted at Sundance, funnily enough), they offer a splendid study in contrasts about how candidates for high office navigate the indignities and insanities of 21st century campaigning:  How they handle setbacks, how they react to criticism—fair and unfair—and, ultimately, how they reconcile their high opinions of themselves with total rejection by the American electorate.

Mitt, directed by Greg Whiteley and released in 2014, is a behind-the-scenes look at six years in the life of Mitt Romney, from the earliest days of the 2008 Republican primaries (Romney, you’ll recall, came in second to John McCain) all the way to Election Night 2012, when he lost the presidency to Barack Obama.

The first time I saw Whiteley’s film, I wrote about how much more engaging, likable and—God help us—authentic Romney turned out to be when he wasn’t surrounded by the hound dogs in the press.  How soberly—and accurately—he was able to identify and assess his own electoral weaknesses, even in the most high-pitched moments of both campaigns.  How, in the end, those very shortcomings—the stiffness, the flip-flopping, the “47 percent” video—prevented America from noticing the wholly decent and eminently qualified candidate who resided underneath.

Watching Mitt again recently—this time in the age of Trump—I found myself admiring this version of Mitt Romney even more than I did the first time.  Apart from the billions of other ways Romney is preferable to Donald Trump—both as a politician and a human being—in Mitt he presents as a man responding to adversity and disappointment about as well as someone in his position possibly could.  No matter how bad things get—say, when he loses the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2008, or when Obama gets the better of him in their second debate in 2012—he always seems to grasp exactly what the problem is and how he might—or might not—be able to fix it.

In other words, Romney never succumbs to self-pity, never throws a tantrum, never blames his troubles on everyone else, never loses touch with reality.  For all the cockeyed optimism he projects both on and offstage, at heart he is a steely-eyed realist whose sense of optics and the public mood are sharper, perhaps, than that of anyone else in his inner circle—including the members of his large and fiercely loyal family.

As the rest of his posse whines about the unfairness of it all—asking, incredulously, how voters could possibly prefer President Obama to him—Mitt retains the wherewithal and discipline to look inward—to understand why he is struggling and, in time, to recognize a lost cause when he sees one.  On Election Night—as the numbers trickle in and it becomes clear the evening is not going his way—he maintains a sad, stubborn smile, resolute that, through months of hard campaigning, he has arrived at some sort of inner peace.

Now consider Weiner, the doc from earlier this year by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, which follows Anthony Weiner through his ill-conceived, disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in the summer of 2013.

Weiner, as you know, is the feisty former congressman from Brooklyn who was forced to resign his House seat in 2011, after it was revealed he had texted pictures of…himself…to a series of strange young women.  From the shame and disgrace of that sordid affair, he decided the next logical step was to become chief executive of the largest city in the United States—a contest he would lose by a comically huge margin (he finished in fifth place, with 5 percent of the vote), hindered, in part, by a brand new sexting story that hit newsstands at the worst possible moment.

Like Romney with his project, Weiner allowed the crew of Weiner to follow him around everywhere—through the good times and the bad—and the most salient impression we get is that Anthony Weiner is possibly the only man in America more narcissistic than Donald Trump.

At no point in this film does Weiner consider the well-being of anyone but himself; at no point does he feel particularly responsible for the misfortunes that seem to follow him everywhere he goes; at no point does he understand how ridiculous his multiple sexting scandals have made him look, even to his own supporters; and at no point does he ponder whether running for mayor—or anything else, for that matter—was an act of pure hubris—and, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of his marriage.  (His wife, Huma Abedin, announced their separation earlier this year, following yet another round of sexting with yet another random lady.)

This is not to say that, during this ordeal, Weiner is entirely without self-awareness or introspection.  In fact, the filmmakers frequently cross-examine their subject about the wisdom of his many puzzling life decisions, and he does occasionally attempt to ascertain what might be going on in his brain.

All the same, Weiner’s quest is fundamentally a lonely and selfish one—a way to prove and redeem himself after an embarrassing and tawdry fall from grace (not that he was ever particularly graceful in the first place)—and his response to repeated humiliations is to step right back into the flogging machine that the press is all-too-willing to fire up.

Witness, for instance, his confrontation in a Jewish bakery with a customer who berates him for his immature behavior—a charge Weiner rebuts by (you guessed it!) behaving immaturely.  Seeing Weiner take the bait and escalate the situation into a pointless shouting match—later breathlessly reported on the evening news, naturally—we cannot help but agree with a smirking bystander who turns to the camera and says, “He could’ve just walked away.”

But Anthony Weiner is not the sort of person who can just walk away from anything.  He is too proud, too petulant—too insecure in his own skin—to let even the mildest criticism slide.  He is a political street fighter who can trash talk others until the cows come home but turns into a sputtering nincompoop whenever the insults ricochet back in his direction.

Remind you of anyone else we know?

If Donald Trump insists on losing the 2016 presidential election—surely, no one can still believe he’s trying to win—and if he wants America to extend even a modicum of respect for how he does so, Mitt Romney’s is the ideal model for him to emulate:  Calm, cool, collected and classy.

It is to Romney’s credit—as a candidate and a person—that Trump can’t even pretend to exhibit the graciousness in defeat that Romney essayed so well in 2012, both in public and in private.  While there is still time for Trump to completely transform his personality and accept his personal failings like a man, the smart money remains where it has always been:  As far as political temperaments go, Donald Trump is nothing more than a giant stinking Weiner.

Romney, Revisited

I suppose the most surprising thing about Greg Whiteley’s Mitt is how unsurprising it all is.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month and has since become available on Netflix, is a documentary of Mitt Romney’s two runs for the White House, in 2008 and 2012, covering six years in the life of the former Massachusetts governor and his family, to whom Whiteley was granted exclusive access.

A mere 90 minutes in length, Mitt inevitably is able only to scratch the surface of Romney’s journey from long-shot also-ran in 2008 to frontrunner and Republican nominee four years later.  I would be extremely interested to view, say, a three-hour cut culled from the same material.  Except I suspect that such a document, if it existed, would be no more informative or enlightening than the version we currently have.

I don’t mean this as a critique of the film itself, but rather as a reflection that Romney, the presidential candidate, is exactly who we thought he was all along.  It may be that unless and until he runs yet again—it’s not impossible, if you believe the rumors—we have learned all we ever will about what makes Mitt Romney tick.

Mitt, the documentary, is an agreeable mixture of fly-on-the-wall observation and one-on-one interaction with its subjects.  There are poignant moments with Ann Romney, who expresses her exasperation with the whole process of running for president, and a flash of amusing candidness from Josh Romney, one of the couple’s five sons, who asks the camera whether he should say what he really thinks or what he has been “trained” to say about his perfect, wonderful old dad.  (He ends up doing both.)

On the other hand, Mitt contains precious few interactions with the man himself, and makes only nominal attempts to truly get inside Mitt Romney’s head.  Was it a condition of Whiteley’s access that he only probe so deep?

That’s not to say the movie contains no moments of illumination or clarity.  My sense is that Romney voters will see Mitt as a validation of their support, while those on Team Obama will feel their efforts to defeat Romney were well-founded and worth the trouble.

In other words, most people’s perceptions about the GOP standard-bearer will be confirmed by this film, and there is definite value in learning that your superficial hunch was right on the money.

In perhaps the movie’s most compelling scene, we find Romney in a hotel room with family, railing self-righteously against the longstanding “flip flopper” label as unfair and untrue—but also, interestingly, as perhaps politically insurmountable.  “Maybe I’ve gotta live with it,” he concedes.  “In which case, I think I’m a flawed candidate.”

It is a moment in which Romney, even in the midst of a temper tantrum, is able to soberly and realistically assess his prospects, treating his own personality as if it were any other product that he, a CEO by trade, might be selling to a wide audience.  Few presidential candidates are as clear-eyed and self-critical as that.

We see this quality elsewhere in the movie, as well.  Following his triumphant first debate performance against President Obama, Romney wastes no time in concluding (correctly, it turned out) that the second and third matchups will not be so easy, citing past examples from history to make his point.

Further, it was indeed Romney, all the way back in January 2008, who most deeply understood what a formidable force Barack Obama had become in the Democratic primaries, following his victory in the Iowa caucuses.  (Romney’s fellow Republican candidates were still focused entirely on Hillary Clinton.)

One conclusion we might draw is that, in the world of politics, Mitt Romney is perhaps better-suited as a strategist rather than a candidate—a man who understands human nature but struggles to forge connections with actual humans outside of his familial inner circle.

We could even go as far to say that he would make a better president than candidate.  There is something to be said for a commander-in-chief with the ability to resist drinking his own Kool-Aid—a person who can diagnose a problem when he sees it, even if he doesn’t necessarily possess a ready-made solution to it.

While the theory of “running America like a business” is hardly settled political science, there are clear advantages to having a chief executive who thinks like a businessman.

The final takeaway of Mitt, then, is that despite Romney’s evident strengths, he was unable to convince the American public that his product on offer was something they were interested in buying in the first place.

Third Party Plight

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had their second debate this past Tuesday, but they are not the only people running for president this year.

Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor, is running on the Libertarian Party line.  Jill Stein, physician and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, is this year’s nominee of the Green Party.  And Virgil Goode, former Virginia congressman, carries the banner for the Constitution Party.

But those are just the candidates who have managed to stencil their names on a majority of statewide ballots.  There’s also the Objectivist Party, founded on the teachings of Ayn Rand.  There’s the Justice Party, the Prohibition Party, the Modern Whig Party, at least five different outfits with “Socialism” in the title, and also the Peace and Freedom Party, represented by none other than Roseanne Barr.

We could go on, but things might start to get silly.

In spite of the paragraph I just wrote—and in spite of recent history—so-called third parties have played a real and sometimes significant role in shaping American politics.  To voters under 30, this impact begins and ends with Ralph Nader and his alleged “spoiling” of the 2000 election for Al Gore in Florida—a tenuous claim, at best.  This is a shame, because it clouds a much more colorful history of various rogue candidates and their disruptions of our otherwise two-party system.

In 1992, for instance, independent candidate H. Ross Perot caused enough of a stir not only to ultimately garner nearly 20 million votes nationwide, but managed actually to involve himself in all three presidential debates—even being declared the “winner” of them by the public and media alike.

Four score prior, Theodore Roosevelt invented a new party, the Progressives (known by history as the Bull Moose Party) to challenge Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Although Roosevelt lost, he did so by splitting the Republican Party—“spoiling” it for Taft, as it were—ceding Wilson a plurality of the vote that he might otherwise not have received.  We can hardly picture world history between 1912 and 1920 without a President Wilson, and it was a third party that made it happen.

Today, for those of us who do not identify with either the Democrats or Republicans, third parties—individually and collectively—represent one tragic, massive tease.

Contemporary third parties exist, after all, on the very assumption that the two Goliaths we have do not encompass the views and concerns of all citizens of these United States.  Gary Johnson speaks about ending the drug war, as Obama and Romney do not.  Jill Stein advocates cutting the defense budget by 50 percent, as Obama and Romney do not.  Ron Paul—perennially pushed, but ultimately resistant, to secede from the GOP—would abolish the Education Department and the CIA, as Obama and Romney most definitely would not.

Conceivably—since the country is divided roughly three ways—an organized, independent third party could pull a TR or better, and perhaps even win a plurality of the vote, rather than simply diluting it amongst the powers that be.

To wit:  A 2010 Gallop poll found 31 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans, and 38 percent as independent.  That is an awfully large pool of proverbial men and women without a country.

The short answer to “Why don’t third party candidates win?” is easy enough:  We, the 38 percent, are no more in agreement about any particular issue than anyone else—except, I suppose, for the issue of not identifying as Democrats or Republicans.

People have justified figures such as Nader as vehicles for a “protest vote,” and this alludes to the tragedy of the whole business:  Independent voters who detest their two real choices are left with no practical alternative—just a symbolic opting out of the whole system.

What is more, there are institutional mechanisms currently in place that are designed to prevent a serious third party from taking hold in our system, and if you don’t work within the system, you exert no influence whatever.

Except when you do.

I do not expect a third party candidate to be elected president in my lifetime.  Those who run with that expectation are either delusional or pulling your leg.

But it is equally delusional to say third parties are a waste of our time.  At their best, they serve as lobbyists for the people, agitating for causes that never get aired by America’s two partisan wings, but are every bit as important, if not more so, than those that do.  These troublesome gadflies deserve all the support we can muster for them.  To reassert an old cliché:  Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Questions For the Candidates

This evening, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in Hempstead, New York for a town hall-style debate, in which they will answer questions from members of the audience.  Here are some questions I hope will be asked (but fear will not).

Mr. Obama:  You have cited Republican inertia as the primary reason for various legislative failures in the last four years.  As the incoming class of Republicans promises to contain even fewer “moderates” than the current one, why should we expect congressional negotiations in your second term to yield better results than in your first?

Mr. Romney:  You have stressed the importance of strong sanctions on Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.  As it stands, the Islamic Republic is subject to sanctions from the United Nations, the European Union, as well as the United States and allies, which have effected a collapse in Iran’s economy and left the country as isolated as it has been in decades.  What manner of pressure would you apply beyond what is already in place?

Mr. Obama:  You have always underlined the necessity in government for compromise, and are fond of saying, “No party has a monopoly on wisdom.”  Name one issue on which the Republican Party’s position is wiser than the Democratic Party’s position.

Mr. Romney:  In his keynote address at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie intoned, “Real leaders don’t follow polls.  Real leaders change polls.”  On which issues do you think the majority of the public is wrong?

Mr. Obama:  This past May, you announced, for the first time as president, that you think same-sex couples ought to be able to get married in the United States.  In 2008, you said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.”  You asserted the same in 2004.  In a 1996 questionnaire, you wrote, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”  Does each of these quotations reflect what you really thought at the time?  What led you to oppose gay marriage in 2004 after having supported it in 1996?

Mr. Romney:  In 1994, you said, “I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it.”  In 2007, you said, “I would like […] to see Roe v. Wade overturned” because it “would effectively be returning to the people and the states the ability to create their own legislation as it relates to abortion.”  This month, you assured, “I’ll be a pro-life president.  I will take pro-life measures.”  As of today, do you believe abortion should be a federal issue or a state issue?  Were the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and the Congress pass a bill to outlaw abortion in some form, would you sign it?

Mr. Obama:  You have stressed the importance of transparency in government.  When did you know that last month’s violence in Libya was a planned attack by organized groups, and not a spontaneous reaction to a film?  How long did you intend to keep this information to yourself?

Mr. Romney:  At a fundraiser in May, you remarked, “There are 47 percent [of the people] who are with [the president], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”  You have since called these comments “completely wrong.”  If so, why did you make them?

Mr. Obama:  Next month, voters in Colorado and Washington will decide whether to legalize possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana.  Should these ballot initiatives pass, cannabis would effectively be treated the same as alcohol—including an age minimum of 21—necessarily creating a conflict with the federal government, which is tasked to enforce marijuana’s continued prohibition nationwide, as your administration has forcefully done.  Please explain why marijuana should be illegal but alcohol should not.

Mr. Romney:  You have said there should be “no daylight” between the United States and Israel.  Should Israel launch a surprise unilateral attack against Iran, will your administration claim co-responsibility for it?

Mr. Obama:  As a candidate, you promised, “As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”  To date, you have not done so, and your administration squashed a House resolution that did.  Care to comment?

Mr. Romney:  You write, “Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom. It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization.”  This being the case, why should marriage then be denied to same-sex couples?  What prevents homosexuals from contributing to the maintenance of civilization’s well-being?

Mr. Obama:  Have you ever regretted your decision to run for president?

Mr. Romney:  Same question.

A Case For Romney

The political media sphere can be such an echo chamber of cliché and conventional wisdom that it strikes as a special treat whenever a piece of analysis escapes from it that actually makes one pause and think.

One such truffle from the 2008 presidential race holds particular interest for us today.  Matt Taibbi, the renegade scribbler for Rolling Stone, speaking with Keith Olbermann about John McCain’s many policy oscillations, offered the following perspective:

“The worst thing about George Bush was that he had convictions.  It was the things he actually believed in that got us into the most trouble.  John McCain is a guy […] who will change his mind at the drop of a hat.  He’s a cynic, as opposed to a true believer.  In these times, I’ll take the cynic.”

It is ironic, in retrospect, that McCain’s most formidable primary opponent was Mitt Romney, who today is rewriting the book on not letting conviction get in the way of winning the damn election.

At this late date, it is simply a fact that Romney is prepared to finesse, alter or outright negate his public views about virtually every issue in the electoral bloodstream, if doing so might increase his chance of being elected president of these United States.

So we are led, inevitably, to the $64,000 question:  What happens when he actually becomes president?  Will he finally stick to a set of “core beliefs”—if so, which ones?—or, rather, will his term be ideologically neutral, guided purely by practicalities?

Now that we are tasked to take the prospect of a Romney victory seriously, we are equally compelled to entertain that his nature as a no-looking-back flip-flopper is a good thing.  It just might be.

Taibbi’s point about President Bush was largely about Iraq:  If Bush had not been so ideologically hell-bent on “staying the course,” the reasoning goes, then he would have more clearly seen how badly the war was going and made smarter, more practical decisions to rectify it.  Bush’s certainty of the inherent goodness of the United States’ intervention in Iraq blinded him to the bloody, bloody consequences.

Mitt Romney, for his lack of foreign policy experience, is a much smarter and more pragmatic man than Bush.  It is very difficult to picture Romney plowing ahead with a particular strategy if all the evidence shows it to be a failure.  Romney’s reputation in the business world suggests nothing so much as an utter lack of tolerance for inefficiency, particularly if it makes Romney, the boss, look bad.

On foreign affairs, then, we might welcome a leader whose views will likely be conditional to the facts on the ground—who has nothing in particular to prove, other than his own competence.

Not that Romney’s stated views on the subject could be described as timid.  Speaking earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute, he asserted boldly, “[I]t is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind.”  This would suggest a foreign policy much closer to the eventual Bush doctrine that promised “ending tyranny in our world,” rather than Bush’s initial promise in 2000 to preside over “a humble nation.”

Nonetheless, Romney speaks of American power in a more inward fashion.  Where Bush’s concern was ostensibly with oppressed citizens of foreign nations yearning to be free, Romney’s focus is more self-serving:  America should assert its military might for its own sake, and not necessarily to uphold some larger ideal.  Those are not the words of a man prepared to be bogged down in any particular foreign hellhole for a decade or more.  Where is the profit in that?

Naturally, this is all speculative.  One of the many lessons from George W. Bush was that a man’s world outlook can change rather dramatically between being a candidate and being leader of the free world.  Further, we have not broached how a lack of ideological conviction might translate on the domestic front, which is no small concern.  Nor have we factored in the residual force of the Tea Party to create mischief against Republicans and Democrats alike.

What we know we have, in any case, is the latest in a long line of Oval Office suitors who believe a good business sense is just what America needs.  In Romney’s case, this would seem to require a degree of non-ideological thinking, which can be a very useful quality in a leader.  A ruthless eye for the bottom line knows no partisan loyalty, and if ruthless efficiency is indeed Romney’s true nature—if he can be said to have a true nature—then he would do the electorate and himself a great deal of good simply to admit it.

Truth-Seeker’s Lament

Last Wednesday’s first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, coupled with most of the postgame analysis on television and the Internet, demonstrated all that is wrong with presidential debates in the first place.

By now we all know the narrative.  Romney played to win; Obama played not to lose.  Romney showed up armed with spirit and compassion, Obama with mere statistics and tropes.  Romney held his head high; Obama’s tended to droop into his notes.  Romney offered a bold new vision; Obama offered more of the same.  Romney won; Obama lost, badly.

Bill Maher put it perfectly well after the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, saying the verdict of each contest should be phrased in terms of “Who is right?” rather than “Who won?”  Assessing these events based on the latter, as we do, only begs the question of what “winning” a debate entails.  The answer, alas, only reinforces the shallowness and silliness of our politics.

Real debates—the ones between public intellectuals (a regrettably endangered species in America)—are not viewed in such a flippant manner.  Properly speaking, the essence of a debate is to put an idea, or proposition, on trial, with each side marshaling a cascade of evidence in support of one position or the other, with the “performance” of each side judged not in terms of theatrics, but in the cogency and persuasiveness of the arguments themselves.  The audience might vote on a “winner,” but such a concept only really exists in the mind of each individual viewer.

An underlying assumption here—as idealistic as they come—is that, as in an actual court case, the side that “wins” is not necessarily the team that turns in the most enthusiastic performance, but simply the side whose argument makes the most sense, and is grounded in objective, empirical truth.  A dazzling presentation might be a means to an end, but is never the end in itself.  Remember:  The only reason “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” worked is because the glove didn’t fit.

As you do not need me to tell you, this is not how electoral politics operates.  Presidential debates in the modern era have never been driven or determined primarily by argument or truth.  That is to say, a given candidate’s performance is assessed independent of whether the argument he presents, and the statistics he cites, is factually sound.  Fact checkers and analysts might correct any inaccuracies once the night is through, but rarely, if ever, does this change the picture that the debate itself paints.

This, in short, is the problem.

Forgive my stubbornness, but I still believe in a country in which there is such a thing as objective truth—a truth for which leaders in every political clique are accountable, however inconvenient it might be.  Yet, as things now stand, they’re not.

To wit:  In the days since the debate, one newspaper column after another has asserted, first, that the thrust of Romney’s case to the public contained plentiful false information and outright negations of past Romney positions, and second, that Romney was the evening’s clear victor, hands down.  As if the former had no bearing on the latter.

I sort of wish it did.

Mistake me not.  I do not mean to excuse the president for what plainly was, in Andrew Sullivan’s tart words, “political malpractice.”  Obama well knows how the game of politicking works—that optics matter, that the public responds to razzle-dazzle, whatever its form—and he has, in the past, taken as much advantage of it as any national figure of the time.  Much as he likes to position himself “above the fray,” in his gut he understands that, as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder put it, “Politics is a fray.”

Nor, frankly, do I particularly fault Romney for intuiting the exact same thing and behaving exactly as one might expect in such a circumstance as his.  His modus operandi is, and always has been, to act in whatever fashion he thinks will result in maximizing his total vote yield, whatever the cost.  He plays by the rules of the game.

My principle indictment, really, is directed toward the enablers of all this unseemly behavior.  Those who allow, and oftentimes encourage, the dishonesty to fester, be it in the interests of partisanship or simple entertainment value.  They are journalists, bloggers, television and media people of every size and shape.  And they are us.