Final Four.

As a non-bleeding heart liberal with slight fiscal conservative leanings but no patience for social conservatism, I’m finding the Republican debates a fascinating display of regressive one-upmanship among three Republican caricatures with few ideological distinctions and a fourth who’s barely a Republican.  On one hand, it’s good that conservatives have so many personalities to choose from, and no one could argue that these four are strung up by the same puppeteer – they’d each make quite different leaders.  On the other hand – and this point is so obvious it barely registers as commentary, and yet it’s so much a feature of the kind of president they’d make that it’s impossible to ignore – they all display (with the usual, but not exclusive, exception of Ron Paul) such flagrant political ambition at the expense of forward momentum that even conservatives, shuffling through the deck for a card to their liking, must find themselves struggling in effort to settle for one set of awkward flaws over another.  In 2008, liberals didn’t really have this problem.  Like him now or not, Obama offered a very different approach to the race than these four exhibit: he was articulate, knew his agenda, wasn’t saddled with a terribly problematic background (his relatively young age and inexperience excepted), and presented voters with a chance to elect someone new and groundbreaking even on a surface level (and if you didn’t like him, you could go for the woman instead).  I have to say, I feel sorry for Republicans this year, for they’re going to have to pick from among four upper-middle to upper class white men, all of them long-term politicians, who’ve settled in recent debates to internecine squabbling and random kamikaze attacks on SS Obama that leaves them wildly scrambling, in their final five seconds of CNN-allotted attack-or-rebuttal time, to pitting themselves against their opponents instead of illustrating Obama’s failures with precision or clarity.  To our great advantage come fall, they don’t seem able.

I may as well limit this to their personas in the debates, as none of the candidates are challenged by their supporters in the field or in detail by the media (or, for that matter, by John King or Wolf Blitzer), and it seems wise to say at this point, Obama having failed to achieve so many of the grand declarations made during his own campaign, that whether a candidate means what he says or not, there’s a much different game to play once in office.  Surely a number of them must know this; why do they still insist that they’ll “repeal Obamacare on day one”?  Does not one of them remember “No new taxes” or “I’ll close Guantanamo Bay”?  The bigger the promise, the bigger the applause, the higher their approval rating the next day; these guys aren’t speaking to voters, they’re speaking to pollsters.  A candidate running for president must learn something right off the bat: the average voter never really listens to you, he listens to the ebb and flow of your campaign.  You win an election these days not by articulating your agenda, but by building such momentum that your voice becomes the only one heard. The rest is predetermined; no matter how many Americans choose to call themselves “independent”, very few who pay attention will find themselves not drawn to one side or the other of the left-right spectrum, somewhere along which we all fall, and in the general election, what a candidate says will inevitably do battle with which side he says he’s on.

Rick Santorum (hysterically unpresidential surname included) doesn’t seem to have graduated far beyond the strategies of a high school class president campaign.  He’s swallowed whole some of the more syrupy American idioms like “standing tall” and “doing the right thing”, but let’s be honest: by the time we reach secondary education, most of us have developed beyond considerations of posture and righteousness.  His favorite tactics are attacking his fellow candidates as untrustworthy liars, followed by declarations that he’ll do whatever they didn’t/can’t/won’t while reminding them what a great country America is.  I imagine his appeal is broad, low, and unreflexive among those who value, without complexity, the lessons of Sunday school, Boy Scouts, and the ten-minute ethics videos shown to new hires at supermarkets: that Christian decency, hard work, and personal commitment to slicing ham are the cornerstones of American greatness.  Santorum is the guy you went to high school with who never left home, works in a paper mill, and believes his nights out drinking with his buddies rank second only to his last four years as a teenager.  Or so he presents himself.  Criminal?  Of course not.  But Presidential?  When Santorum mentions the founding fathers, he sounds like he’s talking about a minister and a football coach.

Mitt Romney lives as much of the American dream as can ever possibly exist.  He’s grotesquely wealthy, by which I mean he is obviously a smart investor and half-decent businessman, not to mention a practitioner of what may be one legitimate core value, among many phony ones, of American culture: longevity of ambition.  Give Romney credit for building tremendous fortune; it’s what most of us are after anyway.  We on the left tend to feel it’s beside the point, that personal and creative ambition is as much its own reward as monetary gain, but we’re not immune to the consequences of a lost paycheck – the whole thing would be much easier if we too made $20.9 million in a year.  Give him further credit that as a businessman, his foundation in politics was not fundamentally political, that as governor of Massachusetts, he helped build a health care plan so close to the one Obama sloughed through Congress that for a while last year it was Romney’s biggest problem running for the oppositional nomination.  There, however, is roughly where his crossover potential as a candidate ends.  He seems frequently to be out of touch not only with his own stated positions, but also with the way his own campaign presents him (on Thursday, he was unable to recall one of his own campaign’s attack ads against Gingrich, even debating the ad’s claim).  He’s nowhere near the graceful speaker Obama is – another, admittedly superficial but not irrelevant, advantage we will have in the general election – but he is a smooth talker, so unbound by consistency of message that he’s casually able to appear conciliatory to nearly any anti-Obama agenda.  The jokes on the left, by the likes of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, suggest Romney may even wind up a Democrat in office – who the hell knows?  It’s marginal hope, or should be, for liberals: however much he attacks Obama, if he manages to defeat him in the fall he’ll be a moderate at times, a dark and sinister conservative at others, but rarely a danger to the world that Santorum would like us to see him as, or that Gingrich would probably be.  The problem is that, having been elected, he’d be compelled at least for politics’ sake to deconstruct some of Obama’s achievements: health care, military reduction, spending that may have been necessary if distasteful.  And like all conservatives before him, in an effort to cut taxes and government spending, he’d chop right away into the silly left’s flaky stuff: the NEA, Planned Parenthood, civil liberties, and so on.  It can be very difficult to determine just how much of this is Romney to the core, because he rarely lets slip even the smallest unprogrammed emotion; you’re left with the impression of a candidate commitment to winning the goddamned thing at all costs.  Such a businessman-like quality; it’s clearly his truest side.

Paul never tries to hide his: he’s an ideological upset from top to bottom, a man given as a principle of his candidacy to sweeping aside the party line in favor of blunt geopolitics unfettered by mass appeal.  As the clear fourth-string candidate, with no hope short of triple homicide to win the nomination – both as a result of and a part of his strategy – Paul goes straight for the messy guts in the Strait of Hormuz (“I think we’re looking for trouble because we put these horrendous sanctions on Iran”), health care (he’s in favor of repealing Obama’s mandate that all Americans must purchase government-approved insurance as unconstitutional), and Occupy Wall Street (praising the movement for centering on the ultrawealthy but cautioning that they “have to be protected. We shouldn’t be jealous or envious of those people”).  But he’s also bound to a strict code of ethics derived from his background as a physician, wherein respect for life trumps all; his position on abortion treats all fetuses as worthy human beings.  And although this position makes as much sense for a Republican as his pro-military stance on American defense, the latter strikes an uneasy chord in a candidate so able and willing to see the folly of military intervention.  But this, too, is typical of Paul: he’s a muddled speaker, unable to separate individual concepts into clear soundbites, often seeming to contradict himself in single sentences.  To the liberal mind, this isn’t really confusing; he’s able to see how nearly everything coexists and complicates everything else.  Presidents, perhaps, should be clearer, but all of us should be this insightful.  An Obama-Paul runoff, in whatever unknown galaxy in which it could ever conceivably occur, would be a more revealing display of American political warfare than anything as clear-cut as Obama-Romney.  Or Obama-Gingrich.

It is in this liberal spectator’s opinion, for a spectator is all we can be and everything Gingrich wants us to be at this point, that Newt Gingrich embodies the most cynical, caustic, and geopolitically disastrous tendencies of the American right, and he does it with stunning zeal and amoral self-confidence.  He’s one hell of a baby oil-slick showman.  To witness a candidate whose ethics violations ended his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and whose focus on family values has always been a key feature of his candidacy, turn around a question at the head of the South Carolina debate about his wife’s accusations of infidelity and highly irregular family values and use it to attack the media, was breathtaking: “Every person in here knows personal pain….To take an ex-wife, and make it two days before the primary a significant question in the presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”  It was an outlandishly ballsy thing to say, totally untethered to his own political past, and the crowd’s enthusiasm – and John King’s embarrassing failure to point out the hypocrisy – underlined the one single aspect of American politics that Gingrich’s whole campaign rides upon: that the left is weak, and the way [back, in every possible way] to American greatness is to boldly declare one’s own greatness with no concern whatever for any extrapersonal perspective.  And yet…rational thought defies this, but it did happen…the crowd adored Gingrich, as much for the deflection as for its deeper implication: that our failings as individuals can be erased with one swift rejection of their basis, that we need never accept personal responsibility when presented with the opportunity to reframe morality through indignation.  Bush Jr. perfected this strategy post-9/11, but never in two terms took such raging satisfaction in positioning himself, America, or American troops on the moral high ground.  Forget Gingrich’s policies; they’re mostly boilerplate conservative social regression in favor of decidedly American fiscal growth.  It’s his unbelievable arrogance as a person that should give even the staunchest Republican pause – and, by many accounts, does.  Washington insiders (which this former member of the House of Representatives for Georgia, former House Minority Whip, and former Speaker of the House under Clinton, still denies he is one) suggest he’s not only unelectable next to Romney, but unworthy of the nomination by his own fellow conservatives.  But an Obama-Gingrich runoff, while not likely to elect President Gingrich, would carry with it a terrifying possibility: that that man, that disgusting exemplar of naive Western egotism, devoid of moral integrity or a definable ability to view the universe from outside his own large, indelibly white body, might succeed Obama as America’s representative to the world.

Or at least, so it seems.  The problem with watching candidates in debates is that they’re so self-consciously painting an image of the president they want you to believe they’ll be that you’re never sure how much of that president they can be.  As those of us who melted at Obama’s speeches in 2008 now realize, the job doesn’t come easily to the most charismatic, most outwardly progressive, or just plain best talkers.  Obama couldn’t close Guantanamo, despite the embarrassment of foreign policy and indefensible rebuke to American exceptionalism that it is.  He got a neutered version of his health care plan passed, with a stipulation that we all have to buy some form of it even without a public insurance option.  The economy has been rebuilding slowly – unemployment is down to 8.5% – but too slowly to appease Americans’ impatience and mounting annoyance.  I still count myself among his supporters, and for the predetermined inclinations in me, would never vote for one of these four Republicans over him.  I believe government exists for the people, not in spite of them, and that it is the government’s job to make it easier for those without, even if it annoys those with.  We are too diverse a culture to be placing inevitably unfair competition over the welfare of our citizens.  But Obama’s promises and his ability as President to achieve them haven’t correlated very well – and he was saying the best shit I’d ever heard out of a presidential candidate.  So where does it leave those of us who try to pay attention, who want to work with facts instead of ideology because we know ideology is intrinsically empty (and still feel the sting of Obama’s rhetoric, as painful now as it was glorious then)?  Do we reach a point in the development of our political awareness where we must accept that only candidates who say exactly what we want to hear will rise high enough to never pull it off?  Is that the end of the line, and is there any room left there for idealism?  If not, what are we voting for?

Well, perhaps as a permanent species flaw, we have idealism anyway.  The late evening of November 4, 2008, watching Obama win and accept the election – with sentimentally-satisfying Joe Biden beside him – was a supremely exciting moment, replete with the possibility of strange and wonderful change.  If I’ve got sympathy for conservatives this year, it’s because there’s no one in their pack who’s projecting a real capability to live up to their ideals.  But it’s worth remembering that no president does all things well or all things poorly, and not all significantly change the world.  Elections are essentially sporting events, where we pick a side and invest the team with impossibly high standards and expectations, condemning their failures and embracing their achievements as though they are our own.  The fun is in watching the sport, feeling that it’s real and engaging in its conflict-ness.  But you don’t get to play, not personally (and the network-run debates don’t help; at this point Santorum and Paul tend to look a lot like Gingrich’s and Romney’s silent bodyguards on stage).  Democracy’s a magnificent bummer.

One Response to “Final Four.”

  1. Stalin Says:

    Your analysis seems to be more of a superficial, and frankly rather narcissistic, narrative than anything else. You portray Obama as I would expect any kool-aid drinking, rationalizing, white, “liberalish” type would. To assume our dear leader is not from a privileged background (his father went to Harvard, and he was set in an elite track from an early age) is merely wishful thinking and denies the complexities of the real issues. You seem to salt your prose with terms that have no meaning given the context such as “geopolitical” etc. I guess it sounds smart and adds fill to your writing…….. Other than to artfully portray the GOP candidates in a way I would find fitting of aspiring editorialism, which if that is your goal then kudos, you really don’t convey anything of any particular importance. My advice is simple: stick to addressing topics for which you have the faculties to adress.

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