Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Help Me Like the Man who Will Probably be Our Next President, Everybody

I woke up this morning, thinking about last night's Republican primary debate, and had a premonition: there's a very good chance Mitt Romney will be inaugurated on January 20, 2013 as the 45th president of the United States of America. So maybe I should just start getting ready for that probable result right now.

The election is, of course, more than a year away. The nominating conventions themselves are still 10 months away. Millions of things could happen between now and then. Candidates could die from heart attacks. Game-changing issues could rise to the forefront of public debate and throw dominant campaign strategies into an uproar. Last-minute candidate secrets could provide all sorts of scandalous fodder for attack ads. Greece could invade Florida. Jesus could return to earth. Etc., etc., etc. But of course, as anyone with the ability to do more than just scan a couple of headlines knows, there are political structures in place in this country, both formal and informal, both implicit and explicit, which put fairly severe restrictions upon unexpected, unanticipated events having the sort of radical, surprising effects which we all occasionally fantasize about. The simple truth is that it is extremely, even ridiculously unlikely, even with the Republican party base more fired up with anti-government conservative ideology than they have been since 1980, or perhaps even since 1964, that anything like an even tiny majority of Republican primary voters will fall behind a candidate making truly unconventional economic and political promises. The majority of big money donors will not support any of them, and ditto for the life-long party operatives, the influential media figures, and the masses of committed-but-not-ideologically-locked-in GOP voters. Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, even the (to the Republican establishment) potentially threatening Ron Paul, all of them: the media-acknowledged and party-anointed front runners, the Rick Perrys and Mitt Romneys, would have to make serious mistakes, and national and world events would have to develop in truly unlikely ways, for any of those non-establishment figures to get the nomination. In short, it's probably just not going to happen. (In retrospect, it's rather astonishing that the establishment-challenging Mike Huckabee got as far as he did in the Republican primary contests of 2007 and 2008.) This is a Perry vs. Romney slugfest, and Romney is almost certainly going to win it.

And what does that mean? That means a good-looking, moderate (even, arguably, somewhat liberal!) technocratic Republican, one with excellently spinnable private and public executive experience to draw upon, is going to be able to run against a moderate, technocratic Democrat, who has been unfairly--and more importantly, inaccurately--tarred since the beginning of his administration as a socialist revolutionary (if only!). And all this during a time of significant economic pain that, by all accounts, has almost no chance of going away anytime soon. To be sure, the resources--again, both formal and informal, both implicit and explicit--which benefit sitting incumbents in our system, perhaps especially an incumbent president, are significant. But they are, as things stand now, quite unlikely to be enough to overcome the depressive effects that declining incomes, disappearing pension funds, and high levels of unemployment have on both voter turnout and incumbent support--and all that doesn't even take into consideration the often frustrating, and sometimes downright poisonous, atmosphere which has dogged the Obama administration through the health care debate, the stand-off over the debt ceiling, and so much more.

Very simply, things don't look good for the man I voted for--and if he runs against Romney, as he probably will, then things look even worse, because many of his most-plausibly-vote-winning lines (the GOP will steal your Social Security, the GOP will dismantle your schools, etc.) will be difficult to connect to him once he escapes--as he probably longs to--the ferociously overheated Republican primaries and starts his national campaign. So yep, maybe I ought to start making my peace with the likely front page news 15 months from now as soon as possible.

For example, I could take some joy from the fact that Mitt Romney, despite having stated repeatedly that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, probably doesn't really believe that would be a good idea, especially given the fact that some of Romney's top people worked closely with the Obama administration in crafting the ACA. He would probably wants to see elements of the program tweaked and restructured, and he probably wouldn't mind if the Supreme Court found the health insurance mandate unconstitutional and thus removed the whole issue from his plate, but by and large I can't see him as a deep enemy of the whole idea. Except that there's a pretty decent chance the Republicans will have control of the Senate in 2012, and the odds of the Republicans losing control of the House of Representatives are very long. Which means we'll have a moderate (liberal?) technocratic Republican who has made a career of, shall we say, adapting his views to fit the needs of his audience...and his relevant audience will mostly be a bunch of health-care-reform-hating conservative Congressional Republicans, so who knows where he'll come down?

Reid and the Democratic minority will still be able to cause a lot of obstructive trouble through the ridiculous rules of the Senate, of course, and I suppose there may be the possibility that some sort of Deep Inner Mitt will come through, as he sits down, Mormon to Mormon, with the likely Senate Minority Leader. And there is that--maybe I should just be happy one of my co-religionists is probably going to be elected president? Not that I think that will help the country much, though. Give me some help people; I'm coming up mostly dry here.


Jacob T. Levy said...

What's so great about liking one's rulers?

Of all the presidents in my lifetime, Obama has been the only one I "liked"-- the only one whose appearance on my TV screen inspires a positive affective response rather than a negative one. (I warmed to Reagan over time, and warmed to Clinton basically after he was out of office, but over their terms basically disliked each more than I liked each.) But I don't think anything in my life goes better for liking the president of the United States, and I don't really have a second-order preference that I find the next one likable.

Liking the powerful doesn't do you any good. The president isn't your friend, and your ability to impartially evaluate the content of what the president does isn't helped by emotionally mixing up your relationship to him. The only real effect of liking in this context is sour-grapes adaptive preferences: you learn to falsely identify the president's choices with your own.

Retain your oppositional critical distance! Refuse to give in to your tribal genetic code that tells you the person with power over you is somehow your kin! Sapere aude!

Law Talk said...

What exactly do you mean by "like"? Do you want to like him personally? Do you want to be persuaded that he is going to be a beneficent influence? Are you feeling apocalyptic about the prospect of a Republican president and want some sort of assurance that the world won't end? I'm not sure what you are longing for.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob and Law,

You're both thinking I'm asking about personal affection. I suppose that's part of it, but mostly it isn't, or at least I hope it isn't. I don't think I'm looking for "liking the president of the United States" in that sense; how could I justify any kind of personal identification with a politician so distant and removed from, and so thoroughly mediated in the way he or she is presented to, my life? (Not that it doesn't happen anyway, as Jacob notes; advertising exists because it works.) But more generally, it's along the lines of, I "want some sort of assurance" that I needn't presume that his presidency is going to be a particularly baleful time for the country. Can you help me out with that?

Jacob T. Levy said...

Baleful times you will always have with you. But it's wildly unlikely that a Romney presidency would be the catastrophe that the W presidency was; and probably eventually the US will return to economic growth, which suggests that 2013-17 won't be as bad in human welfare terms as 2009-13 will have been.

Feel better? Just keep saying "regression to the mean, not path dependence" to yourself over and over.

Anonymous said...

I find it easy to find something positive to say about our leaders. I have children and I dislike the idea of only criticizing the President of the United States and then hoping that my children have any respect for authority.
When Obama won, I had a lot of good things to say like:
1. I think he will do his best to be the best President he can be. I think he cares about our country.
2. This is a great day. We have an African American president of the United States. This will mean a lot to generations of black children who need role models.
When Obama gave a back to school speech on education, I told my children that I was glad that the President of the United States wanted to encourage children to learn and work hard in school.
It takes practice, but I guess I'm a glass half full kind of person. I think it makes the world a better place.

Matthew Stannard said...

I don't think he, or any other GOP nominee, will beat Obama. And I don't much like Obama politically. In any event, I don't think there's anything to "like" about a hypocritical, out-of-touch billionaire who believes that the "business model" is the best paradigm for operating a democratic government. Sorry I couldn't be more help.

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Amira said...

I could possibly have hoped for Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, to become president, but his adapting his views to fit his audience, as you so kindly put it, doesn't let me hope for him.

For me though, there is one potentially bright spot related to your last paragraph. Having a Mormon as the President of the United States would make a difference in the church's image worldwide. I think that could be a good thing, especially in countries where the Church is almost unknown or thought of as really weird. I'm not talking about people joining the Church because of him or anything silly like that, but simply that it might become a little easier for the Church to move forward in some countries.

Too bad Huntsman won't be the Mormon doing that. I'd prefer him out of the Mormon candidates.

Anonymous said...

Why is it necessary that you like Romnney?

One needn't like a man to pray that he be blessed in his role as chief magistrate of your people, which is all that Christian duty requires of you.

-Adam G.

Baden said...

Come on Russ! He's the King of the Olympics and he has the perfect smile. You're gonna love this guy as president:)

Elliot said...

I don't think the fact that Romney adapts his message to his audience is a knock. I think that makes him an effective politician. In order to stay in the game, you need to be a decent decision-maker so that you have a good track record, you need to present views and a public self that are consistent with what the majority of the voting public (be they Massachusetts constituents or all registered US citizens) thinks or wants, and you need to have those two selves - the governing self and the campaigning self - not be so different from one another as to seem like a flip-flopping phony.

Romney seems to have never presented himself as anything other than what he is: a moderate Republican. I think he also has a pretty good track record of keeping businesses and state governments afloat and/or growing them, and of not zealously destroying social programs or persecuting minorities and the poor in the way that many pro-business Republicans sadly do. He'd definitely convey to the global markets a much-needed sense of stability. So, from what I can gather so far, he seems as likely as anyone to help get the economy back on track without slashing social programs.

First time reading your blog. Very interesting and informative!

John Peterson said...

I nearly voted for Obama back in 2008. Not that I "liked" him much, but he just seemed the lesser of two evils. McCain made me feel uneasy because he seemed prone to violence and war. I was afraid he might want to exact vengeance on somebody for the wrongs that were done to him as a prisoner of war. Besides, he comes from a multi-generational military family, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but like the old saying goes, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

So anyhow, I was about to vote for Obama, because I figured he'd be more likely to prolong peace. However, when the time came to vote, I didn't because by the time voting began I could just sense Obama was going win no matter which way I voted. It turns out I was right. Anyhow, Obama has done as I expected. He has kept us out of a world war so far. The next president probably won't be so lucky. So is this presidency going to be "a particularly baleful time for the country?" I would answer, "Yes." Also, I don't think it will make any difference who the next president is, although I agree with your assessment; Romney most likely will win both the Republican nomination and ultimately defeat Obama for the Presidency.