Presidential campaigns are fantastical places. Here, on the campaign stump, the United States can be ruthless with China diplomatically — but not beholden to Beijing as creditors. Entitlements are always safe — even as the deficit is drastically cut. Candidates build an electoral coalition by papering over differences and offending no one. Then, as president, they are forced to make choices that almost always offend some wing of the coalition they built.
When voters evaluate a candidate’s character, they tend to be Manichean: Candidates are only one thing or its opposite. A candidate is either a leader or a ponderous professor, a man of the people or an elitist, the real deal or a phony. One-dimensional characterizations makes for easy political attacks and self-satisfaction among those who simply want to affirm their existing ideologies. It is the laziness underpinning much talk radio, but it misses the essential paradox of the presidency: presidents move between both ends of a spectrum.
The cheap political critique of Mitt Romney is that he flip-flops. His opponents point this out as if that’s all you need to know to disqualify him. But malleability is a necessary quality in a president. (Constancy has a nice romantic ring to it, but does anyone want a leader who sets a course and then refuses to change it no matter what?) It’s more fruitful to examine the specific cases where Romney showed flexibility, compare them with cases when President Obama changed his position, and then decide which candidate acted out of a lack of conviction and which was simply light on his feet.
You can test presidential candidates by measuring them against the current occupant. Or you can hold them up against an idealized version and see how they do. It’s probably fairest to match their promises with their skills. Mitt Romney promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with an alternative. For those who hate Obamacare, that’s all they need to hear. But simply asking “How?” puts us in a better position to evaluate his theoretical presidency. He’ll need a majority in Congress if he wants to follow through on this promise. The Democrats might still control the Senate. That means Romney will need considerable skill working with the other party to get what he wants. What experience in his background gives us confidence that he’ll have the tools for the job he assigns himself? He’ll also be facing the “fiscal cliff” — an immediate bewildering thicket of tax cuts and spending reductions. How will he manage that and take on repealing health care? Isn’t one of these more important than the other? That raises questions about his priorities and how he sets them. Is he a pragmatist? Or is he an ideologue? Does he have the perseverance to handle both jobs? Would any president?
Maybe there is a better way to evaluate our presidential candidates, and come to more reliable conclusions about which ones are likely to have the skills actually required for the job.
Al Gore once suggested that running for president was like a job interview. But suppose the current presidential campaign were an extended job interview, conducted by the American people. Candidates are so guarded, the hiring committee would have little to go on. He speaks a great deal but says so little. All I really know is that he loves this company and thinks its best days are ahead of it. He thinks the head office in D.C. is out of touch with customers. Great teeth. No applicant would ever get a job giving the vague answers our candidates do.