As we head toward 2012, the American public seems underwhelmed by its choices for president. Charisma and cash seem, once again, to be trumping character and competence.
As for character, the top Republican, Newt Gingrich, pitches himself to evangelical Christians as the man they can trust, hoping that his electoral conversion to some of their views, the fact that he is not a Mormon, and his indictment of the Muslim faith will make them forget his marital infidelity and the fact that he was pushed out of leadership in the House for ethical violations.
When we consider competence, we must decide if we want four more years of Barack Obama, who has, at best, been unable to correct the sinking economic ship of state he was handed and at worst commands neither the respect of most Americans nor the support of many in his own party. While he can't be held accountable for all our economic woes, neither has he been able to create the political capital needed to improve them.
If Obama is not competent enough, can we say that Romney or Gingrich are? Both have done enough "flip-flopping" on such issues as health care, climate change and immigration that we have to wonder if they have any firm views other than the ones needed to get them elected. What about Ron Paul, who wants to abolish five cabinet agencies as well as the Fed and both the income tax and capital gains tax, on the assumption that all this will lead to enough revenue to run a very streamlined government. Then there is Rick Perry, who earlier called for Texas to secede from the Union but has now moved on to forgetting the names of just the three cabinet agencies he wants to abolish, and Michele Bachmann, who thought the American Revolution started in Concord, New Hampshire and who ensures her positions stay to the right of whomever is on the far right already. Her recent call to forcibly remove 11 million illegal residents would, at the very least, call for some creative budgeting given her promise to cut the deficit.
Candidates are human beings and so will have failings, both mental and moral. But the real question is why we, as citizens, don't end up with better material than this.
As voters, we share the blame. We have come to confuse charisma with competence. Obama was electrifying as a communicator in 2008, and so we ignored the fact that he had not completed even one term in the Senate, had minimal credibility and savvy for working the Capitol's chambers and back rooms, and had never managed a large organization. Gingrich is using his debating prowess to catapult himself in the race, but he couldn't even manage the Speaker's job without shutting down the government and resurrecting his arch rival, Bill Clinton.
We have also allowed an electoral system in which the ability to raise cash and take extreme positions to get your party's nomination is more important than the capability to govern. Said another way, experience in governing, the ability to speak the truth to the electorate, and the capacity to compromise matter too little in running for president.
Would George Washington have a chance today, given the humility that caused him to question his own qualifications? Could James Madison, mastermind of the Constitutional Convention and a brilliant legislative tactician who compromised core ideas in service to even more core values, ever get nominated? After all, his farms produced little cash and he was retiring and bookish, the definition of the eighteenth century geek. Even worse, they (as well as Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe, to round out the first five) were political "insiders," with a lot of experience in government, which would render them suspect today on that count alone.
For a contemporary example, consider Jon Huntsman: former governor of Utah, corporate CEO, White House staff assistant to Reagan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce under George H.W. Bush, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush, and Ambassador to Singapore and China. Lots of experience. Huntsman has also had the audacity to disagree with the right-wing of his own party on climate change, suggesting that he may have some backbone as well. While not equating him with the likes of Washington and Madison, where does he stand in the polls? How about dead last?
When we went from a republic to a nineteenth century democracy, we ushered in the power of the common man (and in the twentieth century, woman). The inevitable consequence has been a radically different selection process for president than the founders imagined. Our current process, which puts more emphasis on charisma and cash than character and competence, is not producing the caliber of leadership we need. We seem to recognize this after inauguration, when the glow of the campaign wears off and it's time to turn vague promises into governing reality. As long as charisma and cash are the life of the electoral party, they will continue to leave us with a four-year hangover.