The case for electing a bland, uncharismatic president in 2012
After Tuesday's debate, GOP commentators were unable to measure Tim Pawlenty's testosterone levels directly, but that didn't stop them from obsessing over his manliness: they simply gauged it by observing how forcefully he was willing to confront Mitt Romney on health care, and came away calling him a beta male. "Debates are competitions -- they are alpha dog battles. To win one, you have to create what I call a moment of strength," GOP ad man Alex Castellenos said. "Tim Pawlenty had a chance to get in the ring tonight with the heavyweight champion and create such a moment... It was like LeBron refusing to take the big shot Sunday."
Republican media consultant Jason Miller agreed. "Primary voters are looking for a presidential candidate who's going to take the fight directly to President Obama," Miller said. "If you're not comfortable following through on a criticism of one of your primary opponents in person, why should voters think you'll be able to man up and follow through on a criticism of the president when you face him?"
Its amusing to see these politicos flatter themselves. They speak as if success in their industry is mostly a matter of mastering the manly virtues. To be sure, cultivating an image as a fighter or a cowboy or a maverick can help win elections. But very different qualities drive campaigns and help politicians govern: Machiavellian deception, cunning, a willingness to play dirty, and high-powered lawyers more loyal to you than the law they're bending on your behalf. Attacking one's opponent on Fox News, for strategic purposes, then playing it more friendly when you're on the same stage is two-faced in exactly the way successful pols must be! But when Pawlenty did it, America's pundits started writing him off.
In The Press Effect, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman argued that journalists and pundits tend to buy into an established storyline early on in a campaign, and to overemphasize subsequent events that conform to it. But for the narrative that Pawlenty is a boring, vanilla man who lacks the charisma to be president, we wouldn't be hearing so much about how this last debate marked a failure to seize the moment and distinguish himself as tough. The shame of it is that Pawlenty now has little choice but to challenge the "boring" narrative, even though that quality is arguably very desirable in a president.
In the era of Barack Obama, do Americans really still believe that inspirational campaign rhetoric signals anything of substance? After eight years of George W. Bush, do we really still want a president with whom we'd like to have a beer? Wasn't Bill Clinton's tenure a lesson in the trouble that charismatic, alpha-male presidents can get us into? Despite all this, Republican operatives are operating in Election 2012 as if the winner is mostly going to be rallying America with Winston Churchill style speeches, leading our troops into battle on the back of a Budweiser Clydesdale, and reforming the entitlement state by being a more ferocious fighter than the AARP folks running Medicare scare ads.
But what the nation is actually doing is electing a guy to run a big, dysfunctional bureaucracy armed with the world's biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons. He won't be killing our enemies with his fists so much as drones operated from a trailer in Nevada, and insofar as we can minimize his ego, reckless risk-taking, and impulse to pick purely symbolic fights, we should. That's why Americans should abandon their romantic, Hollywood-fueled ideas about what a president should be, and embrace notions like Minnesota dull in the White House. It isn't as if the citizenry would have to spend those four to eight years ice fishing. In my imagined future under a boring president, we'd go about our lives without being surprised by any unexpectedly launched wars of choice, or ad-hoc billion dollar bailouts, or radical new anti-terrorism measures implemented in secret. And when the president wanted to sell us on a new policy, he'd have to do it on the merits rather than getting it past us with a wink and a smile. I don't know if Pawlenty is the man to bring us into that reassuringly bland future. But his boringness is a step in the right direction.
Image credit: Joel Page/Reuters
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