Modern electoral politics are the most enduring reality show in America. I remember watching the Republican national convention, the first ever televised, in 1952, and to a 7-year-old it was a fascinating and ludicrous spectacle: thousands of grown-ups screaming, jumping up and down, and generally carrying on like children. Infantile behavior is, perhaps, the hallmark of Republican democracy.
The nominating and election processes, arcane and convoluted, reflect our heritage as a nation comprised of separately-governed states, loosely bound by shared aspirations. This structure also caused weak political parties that don’t stray too much from the center, don’t contribute in any measurable way to the candidacies of those who represent them, and actually have very little impact on either who runs for national office or the outcome or the outcome of elections.
To be sure, both Republicans and Democrats can count on groups that will vote for the party rather than the candidate, no matter who the candidate is. But it is the uncommitted voters who really decide the outcome, and one of the principal reasons that politics is so entertaining is that the number of uncommitted is quite large and thus attracts lots of the candidates’ attention.
The result is the shoddy reliance on foolishness, ad hominem invective and money.
With weak parties and the imperative of reaching the swing vote, candidates spend most of their time raising money, and the most successful among them are very skilled at fundraising and reap huge amounts of cash. While money can’t guarantee success in American politics, a paucity of it will guarantee failure.
And what about the issues? For a long time, it has been assumed that the war in Iraq would be the major point of disagreement among the candidates, reflecting the concerns of the electorate. The person with the most credibility in the realm of national security would be the most likely to get the nomination and to win in November. Recently, however, the erosion of the stock market and poor earnings reports point to a slide into recession, and there has been a spate of polls which indicate that the economy is now important.
Of course, in the real world, they are both important, but in U.S. electoral politics, neither seems to be of any consequence in the public discourse. Rudy Giuliani, the aspirant who painted himself as best qualified to protect national security, fared very poorly in Iowa, and no candidate has a very complete or credible view of our economy.
It's all about personality
So, reluctant to focus on issues that may become passé in a heartbeat, or on positions that may alienate crucial voters, candidates instead focus on themselves and castigate their opponents. In an era when there are so many tough problems to solve, solutions seem to count for very little. Obama’s win in Iowa had much less to do with his stance on Iraq, for example, than his insistence that the U.S. just needs to make a clean, cathartic sweep and dump the old guard. Candidates who appear to the electorate to have attractive personalities such as Obama and Huckabee do well; those without, such as Dodd and Biden, get nothing.
It’s always possible that, as the campaign develops further, substance will overwhelm trivialities, but don’t count on it. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 not because he had the most viable solutions to the nation’s problems but because, among other things, the electorate disliked him less than it disliked John Kerry.
And this is nothing new. Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign slogan in 1952? “I like Ike.”
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.