Tamara Miller: In elections, popularity is king
Vail CO, Colorado
Elections, despite everything, seem to operate more like prom queen contests than the serious, fate-of-the-world-determining events they actually are.
Watching pundits break down the results of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary is almost like listening to self-indulgent Oscars commentators who just like to hear themselves talk: Did Barack Obama’s youth just not galvanize enough voters in New Hampshire? Did East Coasters bypass Mike Huckabee and pick John McCain to win the Republican primary just to prove Iowa’s not the boss?
Is John Edwards just too damn attractive to be president of the United States?
I’m just as perplexed when I hear “normal people” talk about the presidential race ” by normal people, I mean people who don’t make a living following politics. And it’s not because they aren’t smart or serious about the direction of the country today. It’s just that when I talk to them about what they are looking for in a president, so many start using the same kind of vague descriptions seen in personal ads, things like “good person” and “down-to-earth.”
Maybe using the personality quotient is a valid way to pick a presidential candidate. After all, who hasn’t heard some Bush supporter who, when summing up their reason for supporting the president, say something like, “well, he’s just someone I can imagine having a beer with.”
Today, most people agree that America’s best beer buddy is far from America’s best president. That’s why I was expecting people to be a little more pragmatic when considering who should replace him.
Take Hillary Clinton, for instance, who seems to conjure up some of the most visceral reactions from those who oppose her candidacy. I’m not necessarily a Clinton supporter, but it would be great, in these quite serious times, if voters could get beyond evaluating Clinton on the basis of her gender, her hair, her laugh, her seemingly stoic personality. It’s almost nice to hear someone criticize her tendency to pander, to switch her positions, that her plan to put government in charge of a universal health care system won’t work ” you know, the things that really matter when selecting a president ” and anyway, an argument more developed than “I … just … don’t … like … her!”
Newspapers ” including this one ” will spend the next several months detailing each candidate’s position on foreign policy, the environment, health care and the economy. It’s expected that when voters come to understand who plans to withdraw troops out of Iraq and who doesn’t and who wants to stick it to the auto industry for building gas-guzzling vehicles and who doesn’t, that they then will be educated enough to select the best choice for president.
The media will spend just as much time obsessing each candidate’s religion, spouse, “likability” factor, sense of humor, past drug use and wardrobe choices, because voters want to know about that, too.
And in the end, which will matter more to voters? How big of a difference will it make that Clinton, along with Sen. John Edwards, support creating a universal health care system? That GOP candidate Rudy Guiliani wants to use tax breaks and health insurance credits to help Americans afford health care and his Republican colleague, Mitt Romney believes the private market, not government, is best equipped to reform the country’s health care system?
Does it matter to the lot of you that Clinton, Obama and McCain all voted for an immigration bill that would have forced illegal immigrants to pay fines in exchange for the right to stay and work in our country? Or will you be thinking more Clinton’s hyena laugh, Edwards’ hairdo and Huckabee’s Baptist faith when you head to the ballot box?
In an interview with NPR last week, Obama made the case for his presidency by pointing out that he is the candidate most capable of getting people (i.e., politicians) to work together on solving the country’s problems. And he does have a point. This country isn’t on the verge of surrendering to its challenges because no one can think of any good solutions, it’s because no one has been able to get our leaders to bridge what divides them and solve our problems.
In the end, it will take a charismatic, “likable” leader with admirable character and values to get this country working together again.
It will require someone who actually has the political will to put talk into action and to charm even opponents to support the cause.
So maybe the pundits and the normal people have it right. We need a president with panache more than we need a policy wonk.
Opinion/Projects Editor Tamara Miller can be reached at 748-2936, or firstname.lastname@example.org.