How do we choose our presidents? In crazy ways, frankly. In party primaries, the candidates are often forced to pass an absurd list of contradictory litmus tests. So Republicans vow to rewind the clock to better days, close our borders, balance the budget, cut taxes but not services, increase defense spending, favor personal freedom while telling people who to marry and how to conduct their reproductive lives, be family friendly while refusing to have government do anything to help families, favor profits by refusing to regulate corporate bad behavior, yet crack down on crime.
Democrats are expected to promise to do the opposite. They will increase regulatory protections and oversight, reduce inequality, improve educational standards, avoid foreign entanglements, favor the working, expand entitlements, limit Wall Street and give power to the people, but empower innovation and forward-thinking.
The result is candidates for the general election who are either unelectably out of the mainstream or frauds who pretend to be out of the mainstream long enough to get the nomination. They then have to pretend they never made those extreme promises. As a result they are unbelievable spokesmen for their party and aren’t trusted by anyone else. The winner is often the person who is best at playing a part. As Samuel Goldwyn supposedly said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Swing voters who decide elections tend to make their choice not on the candidate’s agenda but on his likeability or imagined empathy. Would you like to have a beer with the guy? Does he seem to care about what happens to people like me?
Obama easily won that battle against the uptight, distant Romney. Ditto, George W. Bush against Kerry and Gore, two stiffs, as Trump might say. Clinton gave voters a warmer feeling than the acerbic Dole or the out-of-touch preppy George H.W. Bush, but Bush was warmer than the bland and opaque Dukakis. Reagan easily came across as more attractive that the even blander Mondale and the damaged Jimmy Carter who’d been reduced to a parody of the ineffectual, scolding parson.
Two exceptions to the likeability, regular guy rule are of interest. Nixon was anything but likeable, but in 1968 the country was riven by war and cultural change and people were fed up. Similarly, the country was fed up with another ill-conceived war, squandered opportunities, shirking possibilities and a crashing market in 2008. McCain and Humphrey were arguably the more likable choices, but those elections were referenda on the unpopular outgoing president’s party.
Note, however, that in many cases the likeable candidate wasn’t necessary the best man for the job. Perhaps instead of choosing a president on ideological purity, campaign promises made to be broken, or amiability, which doesn’t tell us much about the candidate, we should begin to think more about character. Not, would you trust the guy to have a beer with you, but would you trust him with your children’s lives, to keep your money, your home, your job, your future safe?
Those who bring us news of the candidates and act as our surrogates by questioning them should quit behaving like drama critics, reviewing a performance. Instead we need to view those running for office as if they were applying for a really important and responsible job. We should regard them as having to pass a background check and a battery of psychological tests.
What kind of person do you want sitting at the desk where the buck stops and the button can be pushed? Are they cautious, honest, tough-minded, rational, prudent, steady, and reliable? Or are they prone to egomania, narcissism, mood swings, paranoid fears and fantasies, anger management issues? We have had presidents with all those traits, and some are running this time.
Do they want power to make themselves bigger or the country better? Are they out to prove something or to do something? Do they have sufficient empathy to understand a big, complicated, diverse country and world or are they the narrow-minded products of a small insular slice of America? Do they like people or simply need to be liked by them? Are they capable of having their minds changed by evidence or are they locked into as ossified view of reality? In changing times can they change? Will they react coolly in a crisis or are they volatile and prone to fly off the handle or dither?
Do they tell the truth when it doesn’t help them? Can they admit mistakes? Do they take responsibility or blame others? Are they capable of learning and adapting or stuck acting out the same old script? Are they happy warriors or mean-spirited, vindictive, holier-than-thou, arrogant, smug and unsympathetic? Can they persuade people to share their goals or are they liable to issue orders and expect them to be followed? Do they like to manage or simply perform?
With questions like these in mind, what do we really make of the present contenders? How do we think these candidates would behave if given the big chair and faced with a crashing economy, a complex domestic challenge, a foreign threat not easy to assess?
Would we feel more or less safe if the hand on the tiller was that of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton., Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Joe Biden, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Martin O’Malley? Which candidates come out well on this kind of test, and which seem more like candidates for a court-ordered psych evaluation? A few months or years after voting for them would you be pleased, or wishing you could take it all back and say, “You’re Fired!”