Just when you thought it was safe to switch on the telly, the Democratic presidential candidates had yet another debate. The caucus in Nevada and the primary in South Carolina gave the three front runners an excuse to indulge in a long conversation about whether or not Sen. Barack Obama could find piece of paper on his desk, exactly how many years Sen. Hillary Clinton has had experience or to the minute how long John Edwards has been struggling to get out of that mill town.
And if I hear the word “change” one more time…
None of this has too much to do with the health care problem facing the nation. Or the housing slump, the crisis in Pakistan, global warming, energy independence, or – really – anything that matters very much. It’s quite possible that towards the end of the debate the candidates came to some earth-shattering conclusion about these topics. Unfortunately by that time I’d changed the channel to a rerun of Scrubs.
The problem is twofold. First, the primary process is essentially a contest among politicians who, in general, seem to agree with each other. If you look at their health care plans, the plans for Iraq, or much anything else, there’s not much difference between the main Democratic contenders. For that matter there’s not much difference between the main Republicans. There is of course a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans — although not perhaps as much as there ought to be.
But we’re not seeing the two sides debate on another because that’s not the American way. In fact head to head debate doesn’t even happen in Congress.
This means that we voters spend the vast majority of the political season concentrating on personality differences, essentially irrelevant compared to distinctions which might make a difference to our domestic and foreign policies. This focus on personality – on style, not substance – continues straight on into the presidential race when irrelevancies about the backgrounds of the candidates loom much larger. It may well be that President George W. Bush was technically a deserter from the Air National Guard. His Democratic opponent John Kerry may well have overstated the the risks he took in Vietnam (at the least he managed to piss off a sufficient number of other Vietnam vets that we ended up with the Swiftboat fiasco). But the point is that personal character traits, and supposed strengths and weaknesses, make very little difference to the impact that politicians have once they actually make it into office.
What actually matters is the legislation that gets enacted, and the types of interest groups that will be represented by the members of the Administration. So when George W. Bush appointed some of the most extreme and polarizing figures in American life to run the departments of Justice and Defense one can safely say that it mattered alot. It’s also clear that that the vast majority of those who voted for him had no idea what he was going to do in that regard. And then there’s the sneaking suspicion many of us have that the actual running of the country was carried out by Vice President Dick Cheney – who chose himself for the job. Regardless of how you look at it, the culmination of legislation and administrative action develop by the Administration has nothing to do with the various character traits of the individual running for office.
That’s why the real question about the future of American political life is not about the candidate’s personality, nor about their tears, nor about their self-styled monikers as fighter, change agent, or experienced decision-maker. The real issue is how the next President is going to appoint their team, and pick their fights over the big problems that require legislation, money and force. Getting that done does require them to be a skilled political operator (although it’s better for them to be more ruthless than skilled), but their personal character traits are less important.
Of course in many other countries an election has voters choose between teams not individuals, and the policies that will be put in place by the winner are worked out and known in advance. And the election cycle is (thankfully) much, much shorter. Even after living through seven years of what most Americans seem to think was a bait and switch, we know very little about the substance of what we are going to get in terms of practical change whomever takes over the White House in 2009. We will know how they described themselves “on message” during endless months of campaigning.
In the end the important thing is what they do not how they do it. For example, LBJ got civil rights and Medicare passed into law, but no one considered him full of empathy. Unfortunately, voters seem to value style over substance, which means that in the end we may not know much about the substance we get and it may not be much to our liking.