It is with a mixture of bemusement and bewilderment that I watch the current machinations of the presidential political campaign and question the seriousness and resolve of a large portion of the American people. As an individual who has spent over three and a half decades devoted to the propositions that government one, does matter; two, can make a difference; and three, can work; it has always struck me as odd when I hear people rationalize their choice of candidates based on qualities that have little or no bearing on their ability to do the best job.
Currently we are engaged in a preview of the fall election that will pit two candidates with rather distinctly different experiences and approaches to solving the deadly serious problems affecting our society. And while this allows for the serious voter to weigh two competing options as to how best resolve the problems, I am more concerned with the impact such choices will have upon those who are either too frustrated or too cynical to clearly consider the options. I fear that this contingent has swelled significantly over the past decade or so due to the government's deceitful mishandling of foreign affairs (wars) and the economy (the financial meltdown, growing income inequality, chronically high under -- and unemployment, lingering recession).
Many if not most of these individuals in what I refer to as the Disaffected Class are refugees from a shrinking middle class. The American Dream has either been foreclosed upon or is dangerously close to being out of reach for these folks and they are angry, as well they should be. They believe they have played by the rules and are being penalized for doing so. They worry about their kids and what kind of world they will inherit and in many instances worry about the world they have already inherited, one steeped in personal debt and dimming prospects for living wage jobs.
The Disaffecteds are beneficiaries of progressive social policies and steadfastly believe that the government, like them, should be fiscally responsible. This does not mean that deficit spending is per se bad or wrong, but rather that in time of recovery you pay back your debts. It is the payback part of the equation that has not been addressed seriously, and the failure is a bipartisan one. We are already seeing signs of retreat on the so-called super-committee trigger mechanisms that will visit whoever gets elected in January. Which begs the question, if our elected leaders are not serious, why should we the voters be serious? And of course the catch-22 is always, well, you put them in those positions of leadership in the first place. How does this happen? Seriously!
In far too many instances a deeply frustrated electorate throws their arms up in disgust and walks away. In some instances they vote against rather than for something or someone. In other instances, they simply vote against the status quo, figuring that anything is better than what we have. Let me confine my comments here to this last category of folks, because it is here where I fear we run the greatest danger of actually exacerbating our current problems, and it is this group I believe that will hold the key in what is likely to be a close election. And given the degree that the influence of money in our political system has been legitimized by the Citizens United ruling it is likely that an extremely polarized electorate will be the norm rather than the exception for years to come. So how do we make a rational choice?
How many times over the past 36 years in my political life have I heard the refrain "he is the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with"! As if that is a serious qualification for serious public policy decision-making. Personally, I have shared many beers with many people over my life and there are very few that I would actually want to see entrusted with the responsibilities of making decisions that affect me, my family, or my community. I have nothing against beer-drinking politicians, but it most assuredly is way down the list of qualifications for the job. Like it or not we live in a world of specialization. As much as I like my mailman, I certainly do not believe that qualifies him to be a neurosurgeon. As much as I respected many of my political science professors, that does not necessarily mean I want them making financial decisions for my retirement. There are very few generalists left in the world but even the best of them are not qualified to do everything. There are some general qualifications that are indicators for success and/or failure.
Thus, as I watch the current campaign for president unfold I am particularly dumbstruck by this notion that because Mitt Romney made a boatload of money in relatively risk-free investments, he would be a good commander-in-chief. Let's just step back and analyze this for a brief moment. Even dismissing the fact that Mitt has tried his hand at the governing thing and failed miserably, there seems to be little logic to the proposition that because he is wealthy he would be a good president. In fact, it would seem to me that those of the Disaffected Class might even find this a grossly disgusting argument in light of their economically uncertain outlook.
Capitalists and the private sector are in business for one reason: namely, to make and maximize profits. No more, no less. If you do not make a profit you do not stay in business, unless you of course are a large financial institution. Government, in a democratic society, exists to protect and advance the common good. Thus, by maximizing the opportunities available to the greatest number of individuals, society can prosper and grow. Somehow, the radical right wing of the Conservative wing of the Republican Party sees in this proposition a socialist plot to change America. Read your beloved Constitution.
Can anyone envision the reaction in the private equity world if a community organizer applied for the position of CEO of a firm such as, oh I don't know, Bain Capital? My guess is the individual would not fare well in the interview process, meaning the person would not even make it to the interview stage. Why in the world would the reaction of serious public policy proponents to Mr. Romney's application to be leader of the free world elicit anything other than a dismissive wave of the hand? This is not a knock on any profession or on capitalism or the business world or the private sector, it is merely a realization and recognition that some folks have special expertise and experience in certain fields of endeavor that are not easily transferable to others.
Certain people are not cut out for certain jobs. Given the requirements of the position of president of the United States, maximizing opportunities takes precedence over maximizing profits. So to those who are questioning the current state of affairs and are looking to register their disappointment, do not be so quick to merely shift gears for the sake of changing speed, and instead carefully analyze the potential of slipping into reverse and leaving transmission parts splayed across the road. I would no more want my trusted auto mechanic to perform root canal than I would want to have an extraordinarily successful profiteer reengineer our social safety net. When viewed from this perspective, a rational choice can also be a vote for change.