What You Should Think About Charisma

January 9, 2008

“I think he has a warm engaging personality. . . but you know, the Presidency is more than just a popularity contest.”

–Al Gore regarding George W. Bush

As I roam the Internet’s vast array of comments regarding last night’s New Hampshire primaries, I find my thoughts returning again and again to a disconnect I have yet to see others highlight. A strong theme in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be that Sen. Barack Obama is running more on charisma than substance. Yet the favorable result her campaign achieved last night occurred on a day when no story seemed to generate more press than her own emotional outreach.

Prior to the tearless moment many described as “crying,” Sen. Clinton seemed almost averse to emotional appeals. The role of students willing to educate themselves about the caucus process was clearly crucial in Iowa, but it might be fairly argued that Sen. Obama was running a campaign powered by hope. Fear, the other side of that same psychological coin, seems to be at the heart of Sen. Clinton’s distinctively emotional message. In those few utterances, she showed solidarity with the millions of other Americans profoundly troubled and saddened by the behavior of the sitting administration.

Rationally, the message should have little bearing on a Democratic primary contest. To be more precise, it should work to her slight disadvantage. From security policy to civil rights to international relations, Sen. Clinton is a good deal closer to President Bush than any of her top few rivals. People who are deeply concerned that this nation has traveled far along an unhealthy course ought to be at least a little bit wary of anyone so quick to support militarism, secret police, unrestricted free trade, etc. Veering away from Sen. Obama, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Kucinich, et al. in favor of Sen. Clinton actually weakens political condemnation of the status quo.

On the other hand, very few people vote purely on detailed knowledge and considered contemplation of specific policy positions. Though a broad range exists, practically every vote cast is influenced by some blend of political analysis with the human factor. Unlike the “make sure you get at least one good laugh out at every press event” day in the Clinton campaign, this display of human feeling registered as genuine.

No doubt it was, at least to some degree. In the debate about the authenticity of her emotions, most commentators seem to take an extreme position. Sensible folks mostly lean toward the “it couldn’t possibly have been staged” view while the dittohead legion is quick to dismiss the moment as entirely insincere. It is as if all these people so intent on analyzing political theater lack any understanding of actual theatrics.

While some performers will falsify even the most powerful of emotions, others draw upon their own real feelings to act out moments of extreme sorrow or bliss. In my estimation, the striking of a melancholy chord was deliberate, yet this display was accomplished by drawing upon an entirely genuine and personal anxiety fueled by thoughts of continuity in the direction of American political progress. After all, who needs to dwell on thoughts of a deceased pet or lost love to reach a blue mood when there are thousands of deceased soldiers, tens of thousands of deceased Iraqis, and America’s lost credibility to inspire dark reflections?

Just as people may be drawn to Barack Obama’s upbeat appeals to the better angels of Americans’ natures, it is hard to resist feeling sympathy at the sight of Hillary Clinton’s passionate concern about the flow of recent history. She faces a peculiar challenge — strength is a virtue among leaders, but a woman who fails to show any hint of emotional vulnerability appears unusual in a displeasing way. The vulnerability she displayed was perfectly understandable. Even so, it managed to generate a visceral appeal that echoed constantly through the narrow channels of mainstream media coverage.

I believe it would be irrational to try and reduce voting decisions to a pure calculus of political positions. Phenomena like personality and affect have bearing on job performance, most especially when the job involves grappling with weighty issues and responding to crisis situations. I do not wish to separate myself from the chorus of voices bemoaning the lack of political expertise most Americans take with them to the polls. Still, it is worth clarifying that character also has a vital role to play in the choices expressed in those particular booths.

In the end this primary process may merit a place of note in the political history of the 21st century. Just as the current President’s abuses of power may well be much more egregious than those of Richard Nixon, the public desire for political change may also be greater than it was in 1974. After all, the 2006 legislative elections clearly did not amount to a political reckoning comparable to Nixon’s resignation. Barring a sudden sea change, the next President of the United States will be selected by the Democratic Party.

For now, the top two contenders are both articulate and capable individuals with impressive public service achievements yet relatively little experience holding elective offices of their own. As voters react to blends of policies and personality, Senators Clinton and Obama will each make many efforts to inspire support from the American people. For a relatively young candidate emergent from an unusual background and confronted by residual racism in a nation that embraced a “separate but equal” doctrine up through the 1950s, these efforts will tend to involve straightforward appeals to hope for a better tomorrow. For a candidate emergent from decidedly conventional background and confronted by gender stereotypes that remain strong even in the most progressive nations, the task of generating enthusiasm from supporters is much more complex.

In the end, this effort to connect with the American people is only the beginning of a process the winner will be obliged to continue throughout his or her term(s) of service. A head of state must do more than raise a constructive voice in setting a nation’s policy agenda. Such leaders also must speak out effectively in many other contexts. From mourning in the aftermath of national tragedy to rallying support for significant reforms to speaking authoritatively to foreign leaders, we all benefit from a President’s ability to communicate with emotional force and integrity.

Voters have a civic duty to do much more than respond to gut feelings, but those feelings are not without value. Between the nature of the process and the shallowness of the media, the next three hundred days are likely to be thick with efforts to increase levels of public goodwill generated by political candidates’ force of personality. With a confluence of planning and spontaneity, the personal charisma that follows from these efforts will have much to do with selecting and defining the next leader of the United States of America.

What You Should Think About Licensing Alien Drivers

November 1, 2007

“I do have a political agenda. It’s to have as few regulations as possible.”

–Dan Quayle

As far as I can tell, political commentary is not popular to the degree it enables people to understand an issue. However, it is popular to the degree it enables people to feel as if they understand an issue. In the best instances, this feeling comes from the satisfaction of having been presented with good information and sound analysis. In countless other instances, this feeling comes from the validation of strong emotions. Unfortunately, strong emotions are often inconsistent with political action based on good information and sound analysis.

After the latest Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate, it was a little disturbing to see so many political “experts” talking about the ramification of endorsing drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens. To begin, there was this jarring use of the term “illegals.” I would say “score one for Rovespeak” on that, but the architect of so much bogus language that almost changed mainstream discourse (e.g. “homicide bomber”) was actually a proponent of realistic immigration reform. Whatever the origins, the distillation of the term “illegal aliens” into the invective “illegals,” an utterance more spat than spoken in some circles, now seems to play a role in shaping the language of major network anchors as well.

Yet this is only the beginning of the problem. It is understandable that a political debate might be followed by discussion of about the popularity of a program that would allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers’ licenses. Experts are not mistaken to assert that, in a general election, any position short of “round ’em up, truck ’em out, and militarize the border” is going to be unpopular. Yet it seems like lunacy when this assessment of the politics of immigration spills over into thinking about immigration and other policies.

The purpose of licensing drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, it serves to provide some basic mechanism by which society can encourage uniform driving practices and promote a modicum of safety on the roads. The purpose of punishing unlicensed drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, that punishment serves to encourage drivers to obtain licenses and otherwise comply with rules established to promote traffic safety.

A dangerous driver careening wildly down the freeway doesn’t much care whether the blurs nearly missed, or the one eventually hit, are vehicles containing natural born Americans en route from Sunday school to a Cub Scout softball match or undocumented Mexican workers en route from an asparagus farm to a strawberry patch. Keeping the roads safe is a common concern. In a nation that is rational enough to recognize these sorts of universal concerns, practical policy responses are usually not controversial.

With so many political noise machines energizing the hostility toward immigrants who illegally bypass the arbitrary national quota system, it is no wonder that popular sentiments misconstrue a helpful public safety measure as “a reward for lawbreakers.” Were drivers’ licenses readily available to illegal aliens, they and everybody else in the nation would benefit from a more orderly flow of traffic. In a much more direct way than usual, hostility toward a measure like this brings suffering upon the hostile as well as the hated.

A more circumspect analysis reveals even more to consider. It is true that this kind of documentation could help illegal aliens build relationships with financial institutions, set aside funds to prepare for future tax obligations or criminal penalties, etc. This hurts who? Then there is the fact that participation in a bureaucracy like this could make some immigrants more likely to play by other American rules. Also, more information would be gathered and recorded about immigrant activity as it occurs within the United States. Again, is there any harm to this beyond upsetting the delicate sensibilities of political hatemongers?

Yet the parade of folly masking as conventional wisdom continues. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been subjected to widespread criticism for not pandering to opinion polls. In fairness, one might fault a leader for being completely out of touch with the general population. Declaring that it is important to take action with no regard whatsoever for the substance of any criticism is simply stupid. However, it seems a sort of reciprocal error to contend one should always respond to the criticism of the majority without regard to the substance of an underlying position.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, closely linked with this sort of initiative, has long argued that it is a simple matter of public safety. Simple or not, there is no honest informed way to deny that it is a matter of public safety. As with a license to operate aircraft or a license to practice medicine, a license to operate a motor vehicle is not a birthright bestowed on those who happen to be born within a particular set of lines on a map. It is a merit achieved by demonstrating proficiency in the skills required to engage in those activities without posing a public menace.

Thus an incredibly poor understanding of the nature of citizenship couples with a triumph of animosity over understanding in the realm of immigration to create the conditions national leaders must face today. Personally, I am pleased to see Hillary Clinton allowing her voice to favor a good idea over a shrewd opportunity for political pandering. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who said, “she lacks even the minimal political courage of her husband.” Though my feelings about the Clintons are far from wholly negative, I could not deny a ring of truth in that chilling accusation. It is refreshing to witness at least one bit of evidence that challenges that perception.

On the other hand, I have to say that in my own lifetime I’ve never seen a public figure make it so far in American politics without personally disappointing me as Barack Obama already has. He endorsed licensing illegal alien drivers without so much as a flinch at the thought of how much that would play into the hateful narratives of one particular thriving media fringe. I cannot predict just how this and countless other issues like it will play out as the primary season unfolds and the general elections follow. Yet I can say it is nice not to have to look so far from the mainstream to see actual evidence of personal and intellectual integrity. Now if only the media could begin to catch up with aspiring national leaders . . . we might yet have the makings of a functional democratic process in our midst.

What You Should Think About Presidential Debates

October 1, 2007

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

–Nikita Krushchev

We Americans have a peculiarly lax notion of what constitutes political debate. It is not at all uncommon in democratic societies for heads of state to make a habit of standing before opposition leaders in public, giving spontaneous answers to the toughest questions a critic of policy could pose. This tends to introduce moments of levity or even embarrassment that some say would be best kept apart from government. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude ideas so indefensible that they certainly should be kept apart from government.

As far from that level of public accountability as we may be, our culture celebrates democratic traditions. Debates as we conduct them still serve some purpose. Among other things, they are vital window dressing to keep low-level political insiders confident that the results of elections are an expression of popular will more than an outcome of power brokers’ whims. In a manner that seems less significant with each passing cycle, Presidential debates also stir up discussion throughout the nation. In times past, fairly specific points of policy might be addressed in detail. Even today, sloganeering and optimistic vagueness still expose substantial audiences to unfamiliar facets of the candidates.

In fact, 2007 has brought us an unusual phenomenon in that both entrenched parties promote many televised debates as part of their own candidate selection processes. Large fields mean that individual candidates only enjoy a few minutes of speaking time at each event, but as a whole they constitute tremendous free air time for the dominant political parties. Well, “free” may be a misnomer, because maintaining media interest involves allowing a few intriguing questions into the mix of softballs and cliches.

In the end though, I suspect more people develop the illusion of understanding than any actual understanding from this process. Take variations in foreign policy practices advocated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When confronted with a question about the use of nuclear weapons in counterterrorist operations, Sen. Clinton’s answer was profoundly irresponsible, woefully misinformed, and theoretically the cause of historic catastrophe. By contrast, Sen. Obama responded as anyone with a working knowledge of modern munitions should — that conventional weapons are already more than up to to the task of neutralizing any terrorist target that might also be destroyed by a nuclear strike.

To say that “nuclear weapons should never be taken off the table” is either a pointless bluff or a sign of ignorance about the enormous downside of detonating nuclear weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, America is a superpower, and we do well to face or even embrace that fact. However, threatening suicidal terrorists with what they would regard as martyrdom, in this case with the especially grand gesture of producing a radioactive wasteland at the site of the event, seems like a flawed approach (to say the least.) Implying that there is a “table” to sit at with terrorists is itself a little awkward, but legitimizing the “do what we say or else we’ll nuke you!” posture is downright absurd.

What happened the day after both candidates expressed their views? Infotainment hacks came to the consensus that Sen. Obama’s inexperience was showing while Sen. Clinton demonstrated the kind of superior judgment she gets from . . . from . . . well, from sleeping with a working President, I suppose. Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear “bunker buster” initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.

Most people who would describe themselves as “wonks” would have no trouble following the facts and dismissing that quirk of the process as trivial. Yet still Sen. Obama struggles with perceptions of inexperience and still Sen. Clinton rests on popular exaggerations of her expertise. No doubt both are educated thoughtful people. However, while campaigning to become the President of the United States, one of them refused to rule out a military option that anyone at least moderately versed in real life weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to dismiss out of hand . . . and the next day she gained ground because of it!

The issue of meeting with heads of government from unfriendly states is less clearcut. Still, the debates wound up promoting public misunderstandings. I disagree with Sen. Clinton’s position that summits with nations like Iran or North Korea should never occur but that the other party makes major concessions simply for the chance to meet with an American President. However, public figures willing to endorse her opinion include plenty of respectable informed experts (unlike the “nuking terrorist camps isn’t a bad idea” set.) This is an area where the nation would benefit from a healthy and deep clash of ideas.

Instead that too wound up being “scored” by vapid media analysts as some sort of win for Sen. Clinton and another indicator of Sen. Obama’s inexperience. There are also plenty of experienced credible experts supporting Sen. Obama’s approach of preserving the option for unconditional summit diplomacy when dealing with troublesome states. If our democracy was truly thriving, then it seems like this would have been the subject of avid discussions from coast to coast. Insofar as it did receive any follow-up discussion, that tended to occur in passing while pundits reviewed the most recent debate as a whole.

Dwelling on the disagreements between the two leading Democratic candidates merely provides a case study in a broader phenomenon. Modern Presidential debates seem to do more to promote the perception of an open popular process than they do to promote the reality of an open popular process. People who are actively averse to informative political media will tune in to these spectacles, perhaps listen to a little analysis as well, and come away with a sense of satisfaction for having performed their civic duty to be well-informed. Admittedly, there are plenty of voters even less informed. Yet that is no justification for celebrating the existing process as if it did justice to the values and aspirations on which this nation was founded.

So, what should you think about Presidential debates? If you like political theater, then by all means you should assemble some snacks and enjoy the show. Even if everyone maintains his or her public persona for the duration, there are bound to be a few moments of interest. Then there are those rare instances where facades crumble and something resembling real human interaction takes place. Given the trend away from the give and take of “real” debate and toward a parade of simple questions with brief answers, neither ideas nor personalities clash much anymore. Yet the potential for an authentic exchange has yet to fall to zero.

One thing you should not think about Presidential debates is that they are an effective alternative to following the issues and the candidates over the long haul. Governing a huge modern nation is about as complex as any activity could be. A quick glimpse at something relevant can add to understanding, but by itself it does not constitute understanding. If you have strong stances of your own on pressing issues, then you have a solid beginning in the hunt for insight into the best use of your vote. If not . . . well, keep checking here, and perhaps you’ll find out a great deal more about what you should think.