The 2012 presidential election is unusual. It is a crisis election like 1932 or 1980, with the American people knowing we’re at a turning point and knowing that who we pick now really matters. But crisis elections tend to bring drama—a broad sense of excitement and passion. We’re not seeing that this year. We’re not seeing passionate proclamations from supporters of one candidate or the other that their guy is just right for the moment, their guy is the answer. I’m speaking of the excitement of deep belief: “FDR will save the day.” “Reagan will turn it around.”
President Obama’s supporters don’t talk like that, or think it. Neither do most of Mitt Romney’s. It’s all so subdued.
What is behind the general lack of passion? A theory in two parts:
First, people know that what America needs right now is the leadership of a kind of political genius. Second, they know neither of the candidates is a political genius.
That’s why it seems so flat when you talk to voters or political professionals.
It’s as if the key job opened up just when the company might go under. A new CEO would make all the difference. But none of the applicants leave the members of the board saying, “This guy is the answer to our prayers.” In the end, they’ll make a decision, and it will be a prudent, tentative one: “This one seems a bit better than that one.”
Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he’ll give it to you straight, in part because his views seems commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he’s direct and doesn’t hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.
Think of what we face domestically—only domestically.
Every voter in the country knows we have to get a hold of spending and begin to turn it around. At the same time—really, the same time—we have to get a hold of the tax system and remake it so that at the very least we can remove the sense of agitated grievance that marks our daily economic life, and at most we can encourage growth. If you really try to do these things, you will make a lot of people unhappy. It will take a political talent of the highest order to hold people together during the process, to allow them the luxury of feeling trust in your judgment.
The next president will have to wrangle with Congress, and when lawmakers balk, he’ll have to go over their heads and tell the American people the plan, the reasons it will work, and why it’s fair and good. He’ll have to get them to tell their congressmen, by phone calls and mail and by collaring them in the neighborhood and at the town hall, to back the president. When this happens to enough of them—well, as Reagan used to say, when they feel the heat, they see the light. The members go to the speaker, and suddenly the speaker is knocking back a drink with the president, and in the end a deal gets made. Things get pushed inch by inch toward progress, and suddenly there’s a sense things can work again. That encourages an air of unity and of national purpose, which itself gives a boost to public morale.
Anyway, the next president will have to do that sort of thing, and it will take deep political gifts. We have not seen that genius in Mr. Obama. Whether you will vote for him or not, you know you haven’t seen it. He seems to view politics as his weary duty, something he had to do on his way to greatness.
When he goes over the heads of Congress to the people, it’s like he threw a dead fish over the transom—it lands with a “Thwap!” and makes a mess, and people run away. As for Mr. Romney it is a commonplace in punditry to implore him to speak clearly of where he’ll go and how and why we should follow.
Both candidates seem largely impenetrable—it’s hard to know them, figure them. With Mr. Romney, you have a sense of what he’s been, what jobs he’s held, and his general approach. But do you have a solid sense of who he’d be and what he’d do as president? Probably not. Even he may not know. As for Mr. Obama, the more facts you know, the more you don’t understand him, the more you can’t quite grok him.
Neither has a flair for politics, and neither seems to love it. Both come from minority parts of the American experience, and both often seem to be translating as they speak, from their own natural inner language to their vision of how “normal Americans” think.
What does all this suggest? That voters this year will tend to be practical in their choice and modest in their expectations. Which isn’t all bad. But joy would be more fun.
We must end with some burly, optimistic thoughts or we’ll hurl ourselves over a transom and go “Thawp!” 1. There’s still time—more than 100 days—for each candidate to go deeper, get franker, and light some kind of flame. 2. The acceptance speeches are huge opportunities to do that. 3. The debates, if they do not sink into formalized torpor or anchor-led superficialities, could be not only decisive but revealing of greater depths. 4. Mr. Romney’s vice presidential choice will matter.
About which a note. Speaking the other day to a gathering of businesspeople from across the country, I mentioned the subdued nature of the election and my thoughts as to its reasons. I was surprised to get no push-back afterward, even from political enthusiasts, only agreement.
But the news: When conversation turned to the vice presidential nominee, I said we all know the names of those being considered, spoke of a few, and then said Condoleezza Rice might be a brilliant choice.
Here spontaneous applause burst forth.
Consider: A public figure of obvious and nameable accomplishment whose attainments can’t be taken away from her. Washington experience—she wouldn’t be learning on the job. Never run for office but no political novice. An academic, but not ethereal or abstract. A woman in a year when Republicans aren’t supposed to choose a woman because of what is now called the 2008 experience—so the choice would have a certain boldness. A black woman in a campaign that always threatens to take on a painful racial overlay. A foreign-policy professional acquainted with everyone who’s reigned or been rising the past 20 years.
I should add here the look on the faces of the people who were applauding. They looked surprised by their own passion. Actually they looked relieved, like a campaign was going on and big things might happen and maybe it could get kind of . . . exciting.