As next year's presidential campaign revs up, the lack of candidates who talk like adults grows conspicuous. There's a surplus of presidential hopefuls, but a shortage of serious ones.
The country has a president who's campaigning for re-election, but not on his record at fixing the country's problems. Instead, he concentrates on blaming others for them -- the Republican who preceded him in the White House, the Republicans in Congress, Republicans in general. ... He tends to psychoanalyze the opposition (bitter people who stick to their guns and religion in a crisis) rather than answer its arguments.
Our president tends to think in slogans (Hope, Change, Audacity!) rather than think. Is he a serious man, or just very serious about winning another term in the White House? Decisions that need to be made now -- whether to build a major new oil pipeline or how to balance the budget or make ObamaCare work if it can -- are put off till safely after the 2012 presidential election. In place of leadership, the American people are offered postponement.
As for the opposition, one loses count of how many GOP contenders are currently in contention. Every presidential debate in these over-televised times seems to be less a debate than an audition. Talking points are rolled out and snap solutions proposed for problems that are anything but a snap. Lincoln-Douglas it ain't. What it is, is the age of the sound bite.
Who's got time to discuss the issues in any depth? What we want, or the admen say we want, are PowerPoint presentations. It's the selling of the ideas that matters, not the quality of the ideas themselves.
The press, now known as The Media, is much too involved with the horse-race aspects of the coming presidential election to check out the candidates' simplistic solutions to complicated problems in any depth. (Who does Rasmussen say is ahead this week, this morning, this hour? That's what counts, isn't it?) The Fourth Estate is reduced to the role of sportswriters covering The Big Game -- except sportswriters may write better. And have a much better grasp of their subject.
Exhibit No. 1: The difficulty the commentariat has had getting a handle on Herman Cain's magic 9-9-9 elixir for the American economy. Maybe because there isn't one. The details keep changing -- if they were ever spelled out in the first place. By now the 9-9-9 Plan would make one of Rube Goldberg's contraptions look sensible. At least Rube's inventions came with illustrations.
Herman Cain hasn't even produced one of Ross Perot's poster-board shows, which made Mr. Perot a brief presidential favorite in 1992 -- before the late-night television audience grew bored and turned back to pitchmen for Whirl-o-matics. Rick Perry's take-your-choice tax plan has much the same attraction for buyers who like their economics the same way: simple and sweeping.
Nobody wants to hear that prosperity may be just a matter of hard work and attention to detail. So is good journalism. Which may be why it tends to be so rare.
Mitt Romney, once again a candidate for president, drew attention to the problems with the news coverage of a presidential campaign in his book, "No Apology":
"I admit to having been more than a little surprised that many of the serious challenges facing America today were not forcefully examined by the media during the 2008 primary and general election campaigns. It's well understood by those who have studied the federal budget, for example, that our entitlement programs will eventually swamp us. But neither party's candidates were pushed to explain what they would do about it.
"In one of our Republican primary debates, for example, we were asked, 'Specifically, what would you do to fix Social Security?' Most responded by restating the problem -- 'Social Security is bankrupt' -- rather than by addressing a solution. Politicians have learned from experience that it is unwise to touch the 'third rail of politics.' But why is that? Why is it that the media doesn't hold accountable those who duck this critical issue? Why isn't it instead that failure to address entitlement and Social Security reform is the 'third rail'?"
Good question, and it won't be answered till the presidential candidates decide they have a responsibility to do more than just echo the passions of whatever crowd they happen to be addressing at the moment.
Mr. Romney may be talking sense, whether the subject is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or the dangers to national solvency in general. But will he continue to be the adult in the room as other candidates roll out the pizzazz, and he stays stuck at his same 20 or 25 percent of Republican voters in the polls? He may be the stable candidate in this race is more ways than one.
Stability, responsibility, experience, prudence, moderation ... all are fine qualities. But are they winning ones? Barack Obama campaigned on Hope, Change, Audacity! Newt Gingrich, master of the one-liner and snappy comeback, is a great debater. His ethical record is checkered, and his stint as speaker of the House proved a flop in the end, but he may be able to count on the American people's poor memory. Herman Cain's got numerology going for him. (9-9-9!) As for Mitt Romney, try envisioning a bandwagon decked out with banners proclaiming: PRUDENCE. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser.
Mitt Romney's candidacy raises the question: Can a candidate without charisma rise to the top? And is charisma what counts, rather than what a candidate can do for the country?
Yes, a presidential candidate should appeal to the voters' own standards if he's going to sway them, but only in order to raise those standards. It's quite a trick, but Adlai Stevenson pulled it off in his first presidential campaign in 1952, perhaps the most eloquent in modern American history. He lost, of course. Eloquence goes only so far in a presidential campaign. And he learned better. Or rather worse. By 1956, he was giving thoroughly mediocre speeches. And would lose again. And deserve to.
As long as a candidate is going to be defeated anyway, why not lose with honor? The American people may decide Mitt Romney is much too sober and responsible to be elected president. If so, at least he will have given us a serious choice.