Let’s get one thing straight. Willard Mitt Romney was never going to be the next president of the United States. So watching the first election debate tonight may be enlightening, entertaining, nerve-wracking, annoying, boring, high-minded, anodyne—in any combination—but the underlying dynamic will not be winning versus losing.
The media wants the presidential and vice-presidential debates to be contests—naturally, the media shapes the upcoming evenings so—because pundits and reporters need stories. And the best stories arise from conflict.
That is not how I see this particular presidential election. To use the old metaphor of the forest and the trees, this 2012 election has been full of trees: Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain, egoistic Donald Trump and mild Mike Huckabee, ObamaCare and the Catholic Church, Catholic Rick Santorum, the Republican war on women, politicians’ traditional wives, the (first version) Democratic platform, percentage (1%, 99%, 47%) as a continuing meme, the monthly jobs statistics (another percentage), the rise of the SuperPac, money money and more money, the endless Obama fundraisers and tin-cup email rattlers, gaffes, a chair—and a weariness, out here in the heartland, with anything having to do with foreign affairs.
These are a few trees. And not to forget the mud-slinging from both sides that all too often descended to the level of Nazi accusation.
The Obama Presidency has not finished.
Now this may seem like a strange observation. And certainly the 2012 Obama Campaign slogan “Forward!” captures its lackluster performance, especially compared to four years ago—but Forward—if ever there were an adverb shaping the vote—it is precisely, on point, here. Forward.
The American people have lost faith in going forward, in the possibility of doing so, but we have this leader, this president, who, whatever his faults—and they are many—believes that we can.
Maybe we don’t share that energy, but we are curious, still, if less fervently, to see where Barack Obama tries to take us next. In our gut, we know we can not go back, return to the past. Maybe Obama will get nowhere, maybe we will refuse to be persuaded, but he held out too much promise four years ago for us to be done with him yet.
Counterintuitive, but the truth.
Let’s be clear about one more thing. Obama’s second term will suck. Why? Because the two major achievements of his first term—health insurance reform and extricating us from unpopular land wars—have consequences.
As ObamaCare is slowly implemented, everybody is going to be pissed off, angry in many directions, from the higher costs and taxes we ALL will pay to the difficult adjustments the formerly uninsured will have to make to the realities of modern medicine: no such thing anymore as “keeping your own doctor;” the various burdens of responsible medicine, such as coordination of care, fall upon the patient. And that’s just the beginning.
Whether we will or no, increasingly we will have to watch the fallout from our leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. Already this is not a pleasant picture. Slowly, Iraq is becoming a client state of Iran, which at this very moment is using Iraqi air space as a conduit for supplying the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria. As for Afghanistan, we are already seeing the consequences of our 2014 departure: regeneration of the Taliban, Afghan soldiers, whom we have paid and trained, murdering American soldiers, the further deterioration of our relationship with Pakistan, and finally Afghanistan’s devolution into a failed state, where its neighbors Iran and China, Russia through its ‘stan proxies, and of course Pakistan v. India, move in to establish spheres of influence—the better to avail themselves of Afghanistan’s vast natural resources.
And that’s just for starters in Obama’s difficult second term. I believe that he will take on entitlement reform. Why? Because Obama measures himself against our great presidents, from Lincoln to Reagan, and he knows that he will never be judged as such unless he lays the groundwork for getting our fiscal house in order. Who will feel most betrayed? His fellow Democrats.
I could go on, but really this piece is supposed to belong to Mitt Romney.
In 2012, the tree is the historical force embodied in Barack Obama. But the tree has many rings—to continue my analogy—and the inner rings, if not the outer bark, are layers of Romney himself: his comments about the 47% of Americans who—presumably, he meant who don’t pay income taxes—a campaign-ender right there; his insult to the British before the summer Olympics—another campaign-killer, because first and foremost we Americans recoil from leaders who embarrass us abroad; his awkwardness on the campaign stump; his perfectly dreadful, horrendously awful campaign (I could go on adjectiving), which has allowed millionaire, prep-schooled, Ivy Leagued, privileged Obama claim the high ground on wealth and money-making.
The heart of the tree—this big picture I’m creating of the 2012 presidential election—is the American people. We ourselves. Increasingly, we are not the three things that today say Republican: old, white, rigid. And by rigid I mean rigidly doctrinal (historically, we have been an accommodating people), rigidly observant of the law (here is where Obama gets it wrong, for we have not succeeded as a nation of small businesses “playing by the rules”), rigidly purging, in this case within a political party.
What we are is resigned. Neither Obama nor Romney sees this. As leaders, perhaps they can not, will not, see this. Perhaps it is better that way—lest they, too, lose faith. But we already know the jobs are not coming back—not in our lifetime, and in our grandchildren’s only if the American public education system undergoes a convulsive revolution. We know that income inequality is here to stay—that’s the power of globalism. We are already adjusting to a lower standard of living. Certainly, that is the case with my generation, the Baby Boomers, who, if with ghoulish humor, have already moved on from the loss of money put away over a lifetime of work in tax-deferred retirement savings accounts.
A revealing statistic put forward last week at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York—and I apologize that I cannot recall which head of an NGO so remarked—is that only 4% of young Americans, when asked in a study by the NGO, said they would be interested in starting their own businesses. Abroad, almost 50% of young people responded affirmatively.
In this new world of the twenty-first century, where we Americans are no longer going to be the people, de facto, at the top of the pecking order, we and our leaders have adjustments to make. I have just mentioned a few that we citizens have already accomplished, and are accomplishing, on our own.
Furthermore, we know, even if the media (using a broad brush here) and many politicians do not, that leader and the led do not have to be in sync. Mohamed Morsi, the new president of Egypt understands this, and I hope to write about him and his revealing Q & A with former President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative—soon.
But today a leader must be nimble. This is the ring of the tree that fascinates me the most, because it is formed through an appreciation of inter-connectedness and a willingness to keep re-learning, both of which success in a globalist world requires, and which Obama has mastered and Romney has not.
The dark side of this ability, this awareness, is a moral ruthlessness that, for all his position-trimming in politics and business-restructuring at Bain, Romney, unlike Obama (his increasing reliance on drone strikes, for example), does not possess. (The most astute piece I have ever read on Romney touches here. Nicholas Lemann’s “Transaction Man” in the October 1, 2012 New Yorker.)
At the Clinton Global Initiative last week, Romney delivered a lovely speech. He reminded me very much of Hillary Clinton at the end of the campaign trail, acknowledging a looming loss by reaching deep inside to touch base with whatever commitment and passion had set the first journey. Therefore, Romney embodied a centeredness that day (just as Hillary Clinton had, at the end)—a centeredness that Obama, speaking at Clinton Global a few hours later, just after his UN defense of free speech, lacked.
At CGI, Romney delivered a paean to free enterprise. Entrepreneurship. Social enterprise. Freedom. The dignity that comes from work. The freedom to build your own life. Romney spoke about Americans’ sense that our foreign aid is not effective, that it is vitiated by corruption. “For American foreign aid to become more effective, it must embrace the private sector,” Romney said.
There was only one problem with Romney’s speech. He did not realize that he was speaking to a room full of powerful people who had already, before him, reached the same conclusion. He had no idea that the Clinton Global Initiative, increasingly, partners with global businesses instead of non-profits to effect change. Just the day before at CGI, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said, speaking to a room peppered with NGOs, that the State Department was moving away from channeling our foreign aid through NGOs (where much of money spent here on employees and reports rather than on target population in the Third World) and looking to partner more cost-efficiently with American business.
There at CGI was Willard Mitt Romney in essence: an honorable man who has come to terms with losing but who believes still in free enterprise. Maybe he will never wrap his mind around the fact that his entire campaign was founded on a wrong presumption: that Americans care first of all about the economy. This is particularly ironic, because Romney understands business much better than Obama ever will. To my mind, undoubtedly I will say, Romney would make a much better president for the small business community—just in terms of restoring their confidence and encouraging expansion, borrowing and hiring.
But Romney, as his speech at CGI showed, is also walking a step or two behind. He is, after all, a man of the last century.
October 3, 2012