Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to decide who to vote for.

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You can't make a reasonable decision who to vote for watching the presidential debates. They are making carefully crafted presentations intended for specific purposes -- each seeking to energize his supporters, discourage the supporters of the other, and sway the undecided in his own favor. The anecdotes to show the humanity of the members of the candidate's own ticket and the authenticity of his connections with the average American are planned, scheduled and rehearsed.

There is no reason to assume that "the winner" of a debate would be more likely to come off better in negotiations with other world leaders if elected, much less than the success in a debate is an indicator that the person would make a better leader of the strongest nation in the free world.

The founding father's did not campaign for office. It is impossible to imagine George Washington doing so. In part, of course, this was because few Americans could afford in those days to accept national office, and few of those would make the sacrifices imposed by such service. The founding father's knew each other well, and would select from among the potential candidates on the basis of profound knowledge of their characters and abilities. The debates are the result of careful planning and hard work intended to inflate the public opinion of these very aspects of the candidates' qualifications.

The debates, especially this year, are full of purported facts and figures. You will not be able to accurately judge the accuracy of the data, and will probably be turned off by efforts of one candidate to challenge the information cited by the other. Moreover, it will be impossible to judge the shape of the candidates' philosophy of economic, social and foreign policies from the data that they present in a couple of hours in the artificial format of the televised debate.

Don't Believe Anything a Candidate Says About What He Will Accomplish in the Future

Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 campaigned promising not to send American troops into European wars, yet each did in the following term. John F. Kennedy found his term in office was dominated by the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was assassinated before it was over. Richard Nixon had to accept the resignation of his Vice President and was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal. George W. Bush campaigned against "nation building" efforts of the U.S. government abroad, and found his administration dominated by 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I could go on with example after example of presidents whose time in office was spent largely dealing with situations that were not predicted during the campaigns in which they were elected.

The world has been complex during the whole history of the United States, but as globalization has increased the complexity has increased. Economic policies in Europe and Asia have greater impact in the United States than they had in the past. A simple man in Tunisia kills himself in a public protest against his government, triggering a chain reaction across North Africa and the Middle East posing foreign policy conundrums for the USA. Illegal narcotics trade not only leads to a massive increase in the U.S. prison population, but also 50,000 deaths in Mexican drug wars. It becomes more and more impossible to accurately predict the international winds of change that will determine the problems to be faced by the president, much less the isolated events that will trigger totally unforeseen crises to which the United States must respond.

Even were this not true, the president and vice president do not have nearly the power that they candidates suggest. The Constitution was written by people who thought kings had far too much power, and set up the government to put more power in the legislative bodies, closer to the people. The "public religion" of the United States demands that the president execute the laws of the nation whether or not he believes in them. It is the judiciary that decides which laws must be implemented and which fail the test of constitutionality. In dealing with a huge executive branch bureaucracy, 535 members of the Congress and their staffs, with the courts, and with the public, and in leading his political party, the president is dependent on the performance of his team of political appointees -- a team so large that he will never meet many of its members.

Heart, Smarts and Guts / the Character Thing

So how do I think you should select a candidate to vote for? How about the following?

Do the party's duo have good hearts? Are they simpaticos? The Spanish word is more than its English cognate. Simpatico suggests a compatibility and an empathy. Do the candidates empathize with the people you care about? Do they related to them person to person? Do they "have heart"? That is, do they have compassion for others? Think of Lincoln asking that a new soldiers cemetery be placed next to his summer home so that he would be faced with the reality of the death of soldiers on a daily basis. But also do they have the heart to persevere in the harsh difficulties of the presidency under the worst of circumstances. Think of FDR striving first against the Great Depression and then against the Axis in World War II, while dealing with his own infirmity and illness, an illness that eventually proved fatal while he was in office.

Smarts: Obviously the two candidates today, both with graduate degrees from Harvard, are smart in an IQ sense. Obviously they are pretty smart about politics or they would not be candidates of their parties. (Maybe not so much the Vice Presidential candidates: think about Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin.) But are they smart about economics and international relations? Developing the kind of intuition about economics we need to deal with the economic problems of the United States and with the global economy is not the result of cramming to look good in a debate. Mastery of micro-economics does not automatically imply mastery of macro-economics. So too, developing the kind of intuition we need to deal with U.S. foreign policy requires years of serious thought. Think of the background that George H.W. Bush brought to the White House.

Guts: Some of our presidents have been war heroes. Some have shown extreme personal bravery (think of Reagan joking with the doctors after he had been shot, or Teddy Roosevelt giving a speech with a would be assassin's bullet in his chest). But I think we should be looking for someone with the guts to take hard decisions for the country in the face of uncertainty, and if necessary over the objections of his political advisers and discounting the risk to his own political future.

Character: Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that FDR had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. I think he meant that FDR was willing to discard things that were not working, try new things, and repeat the process again and again until the government found something that worked. Many of the better presidents had distasteful aspects of their personal lives, but I think certain aspects of character in public life are critically important, such as honesty about national issues, willingness to hard thing rather than take the easy out when that hard thing is important to the nation, and willingness to put the good of the nation before personal interest.

Obviously candidates and their parties seek to present the party duo as having all these virtues, and obviously you want to discount the hype. You can tell something about them by thinking about the history of the person. Has he demonstrated these virtues in the past? We are also pretty good at sizing up people from the subtle hints in their comportment, and the way they are treated by those who know them well.

Skills, Abilities and Team

We know Barack Obama's team, or at least we can assume that most of the members of the team in the current administration will stay on in some role in the next. I would suggest that many of these people were also in the Clinton administration, and some in even earlier Democratic administrations. The team that Obama has formed and reformed suggests his ability (and that of his key advisers) to create a team.

Romney's team for his campaign draws on that of the Bush administrations and even of the Reagan administration. He would have to expand that team greatly to administer the executive branch of government, but those around him now give an indication of the kind of people who would be added.  One can also look at his team building abilities in the past, far smaller and less demanding roles in Bain Capital, the Olympics and Massachusetts State House.

The ability of the candidate to work with a legislature is also critical. In this respect, neither candidate seems a clear winner, although there is a clear difference between the Vice Presidential candidates. The Obama administration had significant accomplishments in its first two years working with a Democratic Congress, but there was almost complete legislative deadlock in the second two years with a Republican House. Romney issued 800 vetoes in four years as governor of Massachusetts.

The ability of the party's duo to communicate with the public is also important. The "bully pulpit" is one of the most important powers of the presidency. Obama won office as an unusually gifted communicator, but has been challenged as less effective while in office. Romney has been seen by many as challenged in this respect. On the other hand, it seems that this is a skill the observer can judge for himself/herself.

Concluding Remarks

I admit that this posting was written in large part as an aid to thinking through the decision criteria for myself. It is however in keeping with the theme of this blog -- knowledge for development. What information should you seek and what should you de-emphasize in analysis of which candidates would do the best job in leading the nation.

The party affiliation would seem to be the most important single indicator. It is an indicator of the political philosophy that the candidate has chosen to affiliate with, and of those who endorsed his candidacy. It is also the common ground for the team he would build to manage the bureaucracy , the people he would depend upon to pass the legislation he seeks, and the judges he would appoint.

Obviously candidates don't combine all of the virtues and skills that are desirable in equal measure. The voter will have to weight their relative importance for him/herself and decide which profile best fits the needs of the office.

Still, I suggest that it is better to de-emphasize what the candidates say and how they are publicized in favor of evaluation of what they have done and how they are seen by those who work with them in public office.

As Niels Bohr has said, "prediction is very hard, especially about the future". Candidates should not be believed when they predict what they will accomplish if elected. They don't know, as centuries of experience has amply demonstrated. But we can judge what they have already accomplished.

Those who know a candidate well and have seen first hand his performance in roles like that of the presidency can judge whether his character and virtues are appropriate to the job. The balance of supporters and opponents will tell us something. So too will the team the candidate depends upon during the campaign. Turn off the sound on your television, and watch the candidates -- which do you trust from the body language and facial expressions?

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