It has been a strange few weeks since Mitt Romney rediscovered the political center, and President Obama went looking on the debate podium for his political convictions. Perhaps Clint Eastwood could have helped him find them. Being president of this large and complex country has never been a small and simple job. And it is even more difficult to lead a nation when the very definition of reality is for sale through Super PACs, when distortions go viral on the World Wide Web, and when a candidate's public position is either "walked back" by his staff or simply denied during a debate. The average person trying to navigate this complexity is looking for a way to simplify and understand the world they see. Our contemporary campaigns do the opposite.
Romney and Ryan tell us that they want to cut back Medicare and privatize social security until they are asked about it during a debate and run away from their own positions. When Ryan started lying, Biden started laughing and then got criticized for being rude. When Romney started lying, Obama looked like he needed permission to react. And the pundits slammed him for his low key "affect." The pundits make it clear that a presidential debate is not about what candidates say, it's about they way they say it. Do they look and sound like leaders? Do they have presidential characteristics? (Which, as near as I can tell, is to sound like the West Wing's fictional president Jed Bartlet, or like Bill Clinton when he was imitating JFK). Obama, the only one on the debate stage who has actually played the role, apparently flunked the audition.
The world has clearly gotten too complicated to understand, and the media too capable of being manipulated to trust, and so we search in vain for an authentic moment or two to help us decide who should lead us: First we find Romney's secret campaign tape, where he complained that 47 percent of us were freeloaders; and then we see Obama's diffident response to Romney's live etch-a-sketch act at the first debate. Instead of looking down and playing with his pencils, the president was supposed to look up and say "Mitt -- your facts are as fake as your hair color." He was not allowed to look bored or unhappy. The authentic Obama looked like he didn't want to be president. The authentic Romney looked like he'd say anything that would get him your vote.
This is not to say that Obama and Biden didn't get a little caught up in political hyperbole and exaggeration. They did. But Romney and Ryan repeatedly misrepresented their own positions and lied. We've learned to expect that. What I find most amazing is that it no longer matters. Presidential debates are fact-free zones. Image trumps reality -- symbols beat facts.
The dynamic is easy to understand. While the century-long battle between the communists and the capitalists is over, the American political industry never got the memo. Keeping the conflict alive is too good for business to let it die. The "Red" Chinese and the Ruskies have all gone capitalist, and every capitalist country has a social safety net to make sure that the working class won't starve to death or, even worse, make a revolution. Capitalism and socialism (the free market and the welfare state) have learned to coexist in the real world of public policy, just not in the image world of American political communication.
We need free enterprise and an active, competent public sector. It's not a trade-off choice -- we need them both. The nostalgia for America's mythical past misinterprets history and makes it impossible to deal with the world we live in. It's as if we genuinely believe that most of our food comes from a TV version of the American family farm, rather than the feedlots and fields of global agribusiness. We hear about how small businesses are the "job creators," forgetting that if small businesses did not sell their stuff to big businesses our small businesses would simply be out of business.
The baloney and BS is overwhelming and, of course, meaningless. Social security cannot be eliminated, but as our society ages it will either be cut or the taxes needed to pay for it will grow. The same with health care -- it is getting more expensive because we are living longer and healthier lives. Medical care costs more because it does more. Someone will have to pay -- because you can't get something for nothing. Except on campaign commercials and in the world of political communication, where there are no tough choices and compromise is not an example of maturity but represents a lack of principle.
In the end, our political structure -- the Senate, the Electoral College and the absence of proportional representation in legislatures -- drives our politics to the political center. Politics in America is about defining and occupying the political center. Obama is a left-leaning centrist. Obamacare is not socialized medicine -- it is the health care program we were finally able to get the hospitals and drug companies to agree to. The stimulus package that helped prevent a second great depression was another example of centrist American politics. If Romney became president, he would also need to govern from the political center but, unlike Obama, the positions he has taken in his drive for power might make it difficult for him to do so.
Romney's positions on gay rights and marriage, social security and Medicare, environmental protection and regulation, abortion rights and immigration are out of step with mainstream America. I assume that is why he underplayed and distorted those positions at the first presidential debate. He knows they do not connect with people outside the Republican right wing base. As for his views on taxation, he seems to favor lowering rates by ending deductions, but won't tell us which deductions he'd end. It's amazing he can say this stuff with a straight face.
Through the distortions, the posturing and the melodrama of this political season, and despite the centrist drive of American national politics, this presidential election matters. It matters because Romney and Obama stand for very different views of the role of government in American life. Obama's views are based on the world that exists: The world that requires a partnership between government and the private sector to build the infrastructure needed for a sustainable economy; the world where the welfare of poor people and old people cannot be left to the whims of the marketplace. Obama may look down at his pencils when he should look up at the audience, but at least he doesn't lie and pander to political extremists. The next few weeks will see an intensified political campaign and an unprecedented level of negative political advertising.
Fortunately, we have an exciting baseball season to distract us, and while it won't feature my long-time hero Derek Jeter, I plan to watch it just the same.