There has been much punditry about how we should be paying attention to issues in this primary season. Of course, there are many accusations that people who support candidates (other than the favorite of whatever pundit we are reading or listening to) are doing so mindlessly, without any understanding of the candidate’s political stands. I myself had advocated looking at issues in last year’s Mayoral election, and so far to me it looks like I might have had a point. But in the race for President, I am thinking that the candidate’s stands on issues might not be that important, unless the stand is for immediate invasion of Canada.
As I have mentioned before, I am fairly persuaded by the arguments of the author Drew Westen (The Political Brain), that people chose candidates to support based on emotions, first impressions, and their own party history; and then the people rationalize their choices later. Particularly in choosing legislators this would seem to be a bad practice, but not one we are likely to see curbed anytime soon (especially if pundits and bloggers just yell at people for making bad choices). But when you think about it, what does the President really do? What sorts of things go into making a good and successful President?
Well, the President does not make policy, at least not by himself. Mostly Congress makes laws that guide policy, like directing Medicare to start a system that offers prescription drugs to senior citizens or reduce the tax rate on long term capital gains to 15% (from 35%?). Both those laws were proposed by the President but enacted by Congress. The President does negotiate treaties like the Kyoto Accord, but the Senate has to ratify them (which it didn’t). What the President does have by him or herself is the power of the “bully pulpit”, a guarantee that unless (s)he is really boring and stupid, (s)he can have the lead spot on the national news with whatever information (s)he wants to get out. That is something few if any other politicians can count on. The President is our “Cheerleader in Chief”, someone who can help the economy, if (s)he is persuasive, by convincing us things are going well and we should get out and spend (which spending can, by itself, improve the economic picture). Kind of ironic, considering what the current President did at Yale.
I would argue that the candidate’s current positions, such as Obama’s health plan without mandates and McCain’s desire to make the Bush tax cuts permanent to avoid a de facto tax increase, are not that important right now. If the President could make tax cuts permanent, Bush would have already done so. Presumably McCain knows the limits of the presidency and is just pandering to conservatives. And if conservatives are the rational realists they claim to be, it won’t help McCain with them. Obama's health plan could emerge from Congress with mandates, and I susupect he would not veto it on that basis alone.
What we should really be asking ourselves is what we think about the character of
the two men who are now the presumptive nominees. They will appoint department heads, do we think they will do a good job? They will represent the United States during crisis, and try to persuade us that they are controlling the situation, which do we think will be more convincing and persuasive?
I think I will try to take a look at the specifics of each man in my next post, maybe on Sunday.