Charisma and Promises to Keep

David Stokes

11/2/2008 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

I voted early this week - but just the once.  We are being told that one of the unique things about the election this year is the fact that about one third of all ballots cast are via various forms of early voting.  This is certainly unprecedented.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, where I live in Fairfax County, requires someone desiring to vote early to affirm a reason for not being able to do so on Tuesday, November 4th.  They range from being responsible for the care of another, to travel.  It is a travel issue with us.  My wife and I head to Ohio to watch all the fun there this Tuesday.

The trend toward such significant early voting is also uncharted territory for the integrity of elections themselves.   It remains to be seen if this development will lead to greater voter confidence in the process, or further confusion, conflict, and potential destabilization.   All indications are that early Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans.  Part of this is due to a determined effort on the part of the Obama-Biden campaign to get out the early vote.

By definition, early voters are not undecided. We have not only decided, we have expressed that decision through the sanctity of the secret ballot.   It follows, therefore, that those still undecided have not yet voted.  Therefore, with more than 30 percent of decided voters already finished with the only poll that really matters, the portion of undecided voters may actually be statistically significant.

It also means that both campaigns still have an opportunity to win converts.

I suggest that one important question every voter – especially those yet undecided – should ask is: “Will John McCain or Barack Obama be better at keeping promises made during the campaign?”  It has been a year of promises.  “Ask not what your country can do for you – demand it!”

We have been promised tax cuts, spending cuts, new programs, war plans, and much more.  Every American needs to remember that it is a very rare thing for a politician to keep every promise.  Sometime next year, no matter who wins on Tuesday, our new president will have to face the American people with the news that it can’t all be done. 

Sorry folks.  Forget how we will be doing four years from now.  How will the new occupant of the White House be doing in four months?  Will Obama stay closer to campaign message or will McCain?  

History tells us that voters do not always take unfulfilled promises in stride.  George Herbert Walker Bush never recovered from the outcry after he broke his “read my lips” pledge and, in fact, raised taxes.   Lyndon Johnson promised not to send American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys.   The Vietnam War broke him.  They even came up with a name for the breaking of a presidential promise back then – “credibility gap.”

Mr. Johnson might have preferred the more benign: “I uttered a terminological inexactitude.”

The granddaddy of all promise breakers to become president was Franklyn Delano Roosevelt.  When he ran against Herbert Hoover in 1932, much of his rhetoric and emphasis had to do with things that never actually happened in his administration.  Just a few weeks before his election, he was calling government spending “reckless and extravagant.”  He told Americans: “I regard reduction in federal spending as one of the most important issues of this campaign.”  He also promised to “reduce the cost of current federal government operations by 25 percent.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

When took office in March of 1933, he raced to the left and stayed there.  He sold the people on it because circumstances had gotten worse.  He was prepared to ask for broad “executive” powers to lead the nation out of the crisis.  And he sacrificed his promises of fiscal responsibility on the altar of populism. 

By doing so, he ensured that times would not get better.  But he got away with it. The man who became president during our nation’s greatest economic crisis did not at all resemble the man who asked for votes in the prior election.  Will the same thing happen if a man who talks about current problems as being the worst since The Great Depression is elected this time around?

Once elected, leaders tend to default to their real selves and comfort zones. There is a certain hubris, a “we won” or “it’s our turn” kind of spirit.   It happens to Democrats and Republicans.  Remember when George W. Bush spoke out against “nation building” in the 2000 campaign?  How about his promise for “compassionate conservatism” and the disappearance of “partisanship” in Washington?

What does this all mean for us right now?  Well, again – we must choose a person who can be trusted to keep as many of his promises as possible. We also need someone who, when having to make the tough choices about what promises to keep and the ones to discard during difficult times, will have the courage to resist the clamor from core constituencies.

Does anyone really believe that Barack Obama, when faced with a push-to-shove kind of choice, will opt to do anything that would risk his image as a populist hero of the downtrodden?  He will move, with lightening-speed, to the left if given the chance. 

He will be the kind of president Huey Long would have been, but instead of the Kingfish’s “Share the Wealth” mantra, it will be “Spread the Wealth.”  And he will have another thing going for him that both FDR and Long had.

Barack’s got charisma.  It is that magic something that gets people to want to believe on the way to believing.   It is fascinating to watch, but whenever it has emerged in chaotic times, it has been ultimately ugly. 

A discussion of charisma, as part of the study of sociology, was first introduced by Max Weber early in the 20th century.  He identified it as “an extraordinary quality of a person, regardless of whether this quality is actual, alleged or presumed.”  He indicated that it implied “a relationship between the great man and the followers.”  In a charismatic environment, “whatever the leader says, whatever he asks, is right, even if it is self-contradictory.  It is right, because the leader has said it.”  The follower develops “a devotion born of distress and enthusiasm.”

He also suggested that charismatic leadership tends to rise up against the backdrop of a chaotic “social milieu.”  In other words, bad times, confusing times, chaotic times are fertile moments for this kind of leadership. 

During the Great Depression the nation was ripe for demagogues.  They always turn up when leading cultural and economic indicators trail down.  Huey Long was one such man.  In his excellent book, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and The Great Depression, historian Alan Brinkley describes the man from Louisiana as someone “evoking an almost religious adulation from many of the poor and struggling.”  He quotes one reporter at the time as saying: “They do not merely vote for him, they worship the ground he walks on. He is part of their religion.”

Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen, but if Barack Obama is elected and the economy has not improved by the time he takes the oath of office, watch for him to move left and stay there.  He will keep the promises that tend to enhance his charismatic stature as a champion of the frustrated.  He will sacrifice promises he made about tax cuts as irrelevant to the new reality he will inherit.

Mr. Obama’s meteoric rise to the threshold of political power should give Americans pause.  A man who would likely not be able to get a security clearance if he tried to get a job with the CIA or FBI, may very well be elected president on Tuesday.

We live in “interesting times,” as Robert Kennedy used to say.  But, of course, he was quoting an old Chinese curse.