Hurricane Sandy can teach us a great deal about the power of nature. I lived through a hurricane in 1954. Caught by surprise, the town on Cape Cod where we lived was devastated by the unannounced, invading ocean. Cars floated down main street; docks were ripped apart; boats were torn from their moorings; trees were felled like brittle toothpicks; houses were flooded. My father had to carry me out of our house on his shoulders as the water kept rising. We just managed to get the family car to high ground with the galloping sea trying to overtake us.
The three presidential debates have concluded in the United States. Millions and millions of Americans watched, 67 million for the first debate alone. Millions more watched around the world. The candidates responded to questions from two moderators and directly from an audience in a town hall type setup. Topics ranged from the economy to foreign affairs, from the record of President Obama the past four years to former Governor Romney’s performance in Massachusetts and his agenda for the future. Pundits analyzed each phrase, focus groups gave real time reactions to each sentence, each gesture. Pollsters tracked how the undecided scored the debate, how and if voters would change their choice.
Instead of asking the proverbial challengers question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” perhaps American voters should ask “Are we better informed about the candidates than we were before the debates?” What have we really learned?
In the first debate I learned that President Obama is moody. He was apathetic, distant, and almost disdainful of his opponent if not the whole process of having to debate. He appeared to be thinking of celebrating his wedding anniversary with Michelle instead of focusing on impressing voters. I learned that Governor Romney looks presidential, speaks well, and is at ease with economic statistics. He seemed confident, determined and capable as a leader in addition to being personally sympathetic when addressing the audience.
In the second debate I learned that both candidates can be petulant and testy. Neither of them was presidential in their manner, neither of them was able to raise the level of discussion beyond criticizing the other. The debate was not impressive; both candidates showed a lack of stature under pressure.
In the third debate, I learned that Mitt Romney is less at ease when discussing foreign affairs than economics. He seemed unsure of his command of the subject, although he was less petulant and frequently agreed with President Obama in contrast to his aggressiveness in the first two debates. Obama, on the other hand, was definitely in control of the subject of foreign affairs – not surprising for a sitting President – and was firm but not testy in his responses.
Do my impressions matter? First, I must admit it was tiring watching the debates in the early hours of the morning and then preparing notes to present to the media. Second, I am not sure that the debates themselves have a relationship with running the country. It all seemed about performance, about programmed responses to impress specific voters, about scoring points instead of discussing serious matters. As political historian Allan Lichtman is quoted in the International Herald Tribune of October 22, “I think there’s more of a tendency now than in the past to avoid discussion of serious problems.”
Instead of declaring Obama or Romney victorious, I would prefer to say that citizens of the United States were all losers. Neither candidate rose to the occasion. This is not to say that I have not voted. It is merely to say that the serious business of governing merits more than Super Bowl type spectacles.
October 24, 2012
There are two types of gamblers,
those who put all their money on one thing, red or black, for example, or those
who spread their bets across the board, like having a portfolio of many
different stocks. A famous investor and
well known squash player once invested all his life’s worth on one position and
lost over $100 million. (Not to worry, he won it back and then some.) Politics
can be like the all or nothing gambler; do you back a certain regime or support
the opposition? In many situations there is no easy way to spread the risks.
Arab Spring has confronted governments with very difficult choices. In Egypt,
for example, while the rule of Hosni Mubarak was not the most democratic, it
gave certain stability to the country and to the region. Egypt was a strong
ally of the West, including having signed a treaty with Israel. When the
protests started against the government, most countries hesitated to back the
opposition. The Mubarak regime was familiar, the opposition was unknown. In
Libya, on the other hand, there was condemnation of Gaddafi and strong support
for the opposition. Now that the Gaddafi regime has fallen, the opposition
appears quite divided. Certain of the material support given to the rebels has
found its way to fighting forces in other countries in the region for causes
not necessarily supported by the original donors.
to do about Syria? The Assad regime has been brutal in its reaction to the
uprising. Scenes of bombing civilians appear daily. The lessons of helping the rebels
in Libya are several: 1) Giving full political support to the opposition is not
the answer; 2) Giving weapons to the opposition is not the answer; 3) The
United Nations will no longer support intervention through the discredited
Responsibility to Protect since it is conceived by the Chinese and Russians as
supporting regime change instead of protecting civilians.
the world of politics a win-lose scenario like betting on one position? The
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently
visited Damascus to meet with President Assad. The conversation, we are told,
turned on agreeing to respect humanitarian norms. Instead of favoring the
government or rebels, Peter Maurer called on both sides to uphold basic
standards. The ICRC speaks from a position of neutrality, impartiality and
independence. It does not choose sides.
who choose sides in conflicts often lose. The opposition in Egypt remembers
that the United States hesitated to give support until it was obvious they would
win. Perhaps the idea of supporting one side or another is wrong. Instead of
having to choose sides in a win-lose position, smart politics would be to
favor true democracy and human rights. That’s not spreading the risk, it is
just betting on that which you are supposed to believe in.
Last week’s debate between President
Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney opened the final phase of the American
presidential campaign before the actual election on November 6. The ostensible
topic was the economy. Both candidates gave surprise performances; Romney was
much better than expected, Obama was downright disappointing.
What was not surprising was that both
candidates were able to avoid confronting several realities of the current
situation facing the United States. What are the taboos? The major one is the
position of the United States in the world today. Before World War I, the U.S.
was not a global power. Indeed, the domestic isolationist strain was more than
prevalent, and it could be argued that the U.S. reluctantly entered both world
wars and reluctantly became a world power.
Following this line of reasoning,
the position of the United States at the end of World War II was a unique
situation. Virtually untouched by the war, the U.S. found itself as a dominant
power. Europe and much of the world had been devastated. The creation of the
United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions and other international
organizations under American leadership was a quirk of history, not something
The second major taboo has to do
with the basis of the economy. The United States has been a major industrial
power. The automobile industry, for example, was created on the basis of cheap
oil and steel. Are we living today in a post-industrial world? President Obama
bailed out the automobile makers, but there is no question that Japan and
Germany have surpassed the United States in inventive car manufacturing. If we
are living in a post-industrial world, what to do with industrial workers and
industries that are becoming obsolete? How to compete with cheaply paid foreign
workers in heavy industry?
The dynamic evolving nature of
global politics and economics should force leaders to deal with change. Since
the end of World War II, the United States has had a dominating
political/economic situation. It is quite normal in the grand scheme of things
that that situation will change. Whether we call it the end or decline of
empire or the rise of the rest, it is unreasonable and dangerous to believe
that the situation following WWII will continue.
Can a presidential candidate talk
realistically about change when the voters want to hear about continuing
domination? Probably not. Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for talking about a
certain malaise in the United States. Barack Obama has been accused of
admitting American decline. The candidates are stuck in giving the voters the
paradigm they want to believe in. Unfortunately, neither of them can talk about
change or managing change.
Change is a constant throughout
history. Managing change involves being open to new possibilities. By repeating
phrases from the past the candidates may ensure pleasing the voters, but they
risk being irrelevant to the current reality. Continuing to maintain taboos or
being mired in nostalgia for the past is what Barbara Tuchman called the march
of folly. Can we continue to hope for something better from our leaders?
The presidential debates will highlight the final sprint before the November 6 election. Both candidates have spent countless hours studying their positions and audiences as well as practicing against stand-ins for their opponents. Since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate on September 26, 1960, conventional wisdom has said that a debate can make or break a candidate. The first debate certainly made the charming, relatively unknown Senator from Massachusetts into presidential material. Since then, each debate has been analyzed, evaluated and broken down with audience reactions second by second, just as coaches review videos of American football games.