The long American presidential marathon is drawing to a close. Soon, one of two men, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will become American's next president and the nature of our country will change as a result.
I don't mean that last statement in the obvious sense that every president makes a difference, which they do, but rather that this particular election is unusual in really being a fork in the road election or, as I prefer to call it, a framing election.
A framing election has two elements. The first is that it presents stark contrasts between the candidates-their psychologies, their leadership, the policy paths they will follow, and the public aspirations they hold for themselves and the country that they hope to represent. The other important element is that the election take place in the midst of a substantial economic or political crisis that throws into sharp relief that kinds of choices that each candidate offers.
The United States does not have these kinds of elections often; Lincoln's election in 1860 and Roosevelt's in 1932 certainly seem to qualify. And in this election we have elements of those two major forces that echo those fateful elections-substantial economic dislocation with all of the social and political implications that arise from it and, a nation equally posed between vastly different ideals of what this country is and ought to be.
The two presidential candidates' competing visions of their ideal America have not been so starkly different since the Goldwater-Johnson election of 1964 and the Mondale-Reagan election of 1984. And keep in mind that unlike '64 or '84, the United States is in the midst of much more difficult economic circumstances, that some have suggested may be the "new normal." If that proves to be true, it has profound implications for America's civic and economic culture.
Now it's true the United States is nowhere near having an actual civil war, it is however, well along the path of a profound political redistribution. Over time, the center of gravity of the Republican Party has become more conservative and the center of gravity of the Democratic Party has become more liberal. Liberal Republicans and Conservative Blue Dog Democrats now officially qualify for the endangered species list.
So, the United States has had two roughly equal blocks of partisan adherents on each side of the political fence--between 48-49 percent depending on how you count for some time now. We have a divided Congress and will, most likely, continue to have one after November 6 th . Government at the state level is also divided as New Jersey, among many other states, reflects. And our courts are a Hodge Podge of liberal and conservative judicial views nationwide, while our Supreme Court is balanced between two clear left-right voting blocks.
This rough political parity means that neither side has yet been able to prevail, except temporarily as Obama did his first two years in office. This is one definition of stalemate, but it is not a quiet one. In the more polarized atmosphere of our politics,
and given the nature of the federated American system, the ongoing political stalemate invites wars of policy attrition.
Consider just one contentious policy debate in the United States-immigration.
Can't get your bills passed in Congress? Have the executive branch issue an administrative order. Don't like a law that a state legislature has passed and its governor signed? Sue them in Federal court. Don't like what the Supreme Court has ruled? File another lawsuit based on a different legal theory and hope you can litigate the same issue over again.
America's well known political sage Yogi Berra once said "It ain't over, til it's over," but the current political reality in our country is that most debates are rarely settled because proposed or imposed solutions are not really built on common ground.
However, just because this is a fork in the road election doesn't mean it will be a realignment election. It won't. A realignment election reflects a fundamental recalibration of the public's views along a liberal-conservative continuum. so that one side or the other maintains policy ascendency for a good period of time. Think here of the Democrat's "Great Society" ascendency after the '64 election or the Republican ascendency after Ronald Reagan won office.
Whatever the results of the election, I don't expect that the loosing side will go quietly into the night and accept the idea that it should give the winning president a chance to enact his policies.
Far from it. I think a reelected President Obama will face even stiffer GOP opposition, given that Republicans will almost certainly maintain control of the House, most likely make gains in the Senate and will have come very close, if they lose, in electing Mitt Romney president.
I also expect that if Mitt Romney wins and doesn't manage to also get a sixty vote majority in the Senate, which is very doubtful, he will face stiff Democratic opposition. After all, their iconic president will have been delivered a stinging rebuke from those who elected a man that many Democrats feel is not fit to shine much less fill their president's shoes.
So, in my view, if the Republicans win the White House they will have earned, at best, a two- year audition until the 2014 midterm elections, not a mandate.
In spite of all this, if President Obama wins he will claim justification for his transformational ambitions, and if Mitt Romney wins he will lay claim to a reform rather than a transformative mantle.
And therein lies a tale of two ambitions.
Now ambition has a bad reputation in political life, and some of it is well deserved. But the truth is that ambition, and the skills to successfully pursue it are the basic ingredients of a well-realized life. Without ambition, purpose atrophies, and without purpose, life's meaning can't be forged and realized. And that is as true for presidents as it is for us.
The modern presidency draws candidates of enormous ambition; it is an arduous, emotionally and financial draining marathon for most successful candidates. You had better want to be president very badly and think you are somehow uniquely suitable for the office to successfully go the distance.
But the question then arises? If every successful political party nominee, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, has enormous ambition, what usefully distinguishes them?
One answer is found in the purposes to which they commit their ambitions.
Mr. Obama has been very clear about his; he wants to be a transformative president. He has said, directly and clearly a number of times, that he wants to "transform America"-his words. And the major vehicles of this transformation in his first term were three items: (first) his complex reorganization of the American health care system, (second) his enormous increase in our levels of spending, much of it financed by going into debt, thereby increasing the size and scope of government for decades to come-if he is reelected, and (third) his reorienting American foreign policy from world to embedded leadership in which the United States is one of many, while focusing instead on "rebuilding at home" -his words.
The sentiments that underlie the president's transformative ambitions are not new. They go back to his days at Harvard Law School when he said in an interview that he wanted to "reshape America" in a way that he viewed as "less mean-spirited and more generous,"--again, his words.
Now the view that America is a mean spirited country is a surprising sentiment for someone who now sits in the Oval Office. Mitt Romney has said of the president that he thinks Mr. Obama does love this country and I agree. However, I think it is an ambivalent love. In his first two years of office, the president has repeatedly and publically, often but not only in foreign venues, called attention to America's foreign and domestic failures-its racism, its arrogance, and so on.
And herein lies another key element of the purposes of Mr. Obama's presidential ambition-his view of himself as a major historical figure. The president is right in believing that by virtue of being the first American of African descent to gain the presidency, he is an historic figure, but that does not make him a great president and it is that what he wants to be.
In a 2006 Men's Vogue interview, he said, "My attitude about something like the presidency is that you don't want to just be the president. You want to change the country. You want to be a great president". Notice the equation of changing the country with greatness.
Asked during a later Meet the Press interview just what he meant by that, he replied that great leaders are ones "who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways so that, that, at the end of their tenure, we have looked and said to ours-that's who we are". In that same interview, he praised Ronald Reagan for having "transformed the culture..." a success that Mr. Obama clearly wanted to emulate.
The president's transformative ambitions of course run in a direction quite different than Reagan's and the president has paid a price for pursuing them-first in the 2010 elections when Democrats lost control of the House and a very large number of state legislatures and now in the form of a resurgent Mitt Romney.
It is often said that the president is a very smart man and he is. But intelligence, at whatever level, is always encased in a president's psychology, and ambition can trump good political judgment.
We can see this in the choice that President Obama made in his first two years of office riding on a wave of unprecedented public approval on all sides of the political spectrum and having a veto proof majority in the House and Senate. The overriding concern of the public was the economy, and we now know from multiple, independent sources that the president's most senior advisors warned him not to take on big transformative projects like health care. They advised him instead to focus on the economy, and that his "legacy is going to be preventing the second Great Depression," to which Obama, vexed, replied, "That's not enough for me".
Mitt Romney has no such aspirations.
Now before I get into Mr. Romney's psychology I want to make clear that my remarks here are provisional. My interest in him has expanded in direct proportion to his electoral viability, which is to say a moderate, steady but growing amount over the course of the campaign. If he wins, which now seems like at least a 50-50 proposition, I probably will write a Romney book, but its focus will be on how he handles the issue of governing an evenly split country rather than the mysteries of a complex developmental history and psychology, as was the case with President Obama.
That's one way of saying that in some respects Mr. Romney does not appear to be an overly complicated man-psychologically. What you see is a large part of who he is.
Of course before the 1 st debate seeing him clearly was no easy matter. The president's campaign presented Mr. Romney as a unfeeling, uncaring plutocrat who was only interested in making money at the expense of others and dedicating himself to advancing the interests of his rich friends.
What 70 plus million people saw when they tuned into the first debate was a real person, very unlike the caricature they had been led to expect, and the election shifted.
In reality, Mr. Romney is a very smart, very competitive, very determined, ambitious achiever-much like the president. And they resemble each other in another way as well. Neither man is partial to revealing their inner feelings-- the president because growing up he became used to being alone and on his own, has a standoffish temperament that reflects these experiences, while for Mr. Romney it is because he was brought up to believe that personal reticence was always to be preferred to public displays. Thus we have in Mr. Romney, the paradox of man who has done many admirable things for other people throughout his life, but who must overcome a lifetime of socialization to even mention them.
Like most of us, Mr. Romney grew up in a family that set the standards and laid the foundation for the person he became. His mother Lenore, was a beautiful woman with brains who gave up a Hollywood career to marry her determined suitor, helped raise a close knit family and was herself a candidate, unsuccessful, for a U.S. Senate Seat.
But it is Mitt's father who is the north star of his personal compass. His father was in many ways the epitome of the iconic American narrative of the self-made man. He was born in 1907 in Mexico, lived in very poor circumstances, and had to flee that country during their revolution. When he arrived here he was on government relief for a short time, and lived in Salt Lake through the Great Depression."
He started out his life with very little and through hard work and monumental determination rose to become CEO of American Motors, civic leader, Mormon Church elder, Governor of Michigan, and ultimately a serious, if unsuccessful candidate for president of the United States.
In his drive and determination to build the life he wanted to live, he left an indelible mark on his son Mitt who idealized him and still does. There are many examples of that; I'll give just two. Before every campaign debate, Romney writes "Dad" on a piece of paper to place on his podium as a visual reminder of his heritage and his debt.
Here's a second one. In a 2007 interview with George Stephanopoulos, the subject of George Romney's unsuccessful presidential bid came up, as did his ability to move on with his life after he lost. About that Mitt had this to say about his father: " The man was unique. My dad, I mean, I am a small shadow of the real deal. My dad was extraordinary." It's an interesting statement; the admiration is palpable, and so is the feeling that as the son he has yet to measure up to his idealized vision.
It's also very interesting to compare this statement with one that President Obama has made several times about his father-a smart, arrogant, erratic man who abandoned his American wife and their small child while failing to complete his PhD at Harvard and who had aspirations to be a transformative leader in his home country of Kenya that he failed to accomplish. About that legacy President Obama said more than once: "every man is trying to live up to his father's expectations or making up for his mistakes."
Obama's transformative ambitions can be read as an effort to accomplish what his father didn't; but what of Mitt Romney? His father failed to become president; is Mitt's candidacy a continuation of his father's quest?
Yes, to some degree it is, but with a striking difference from the Obama father-son story.
Mitt's father's political ambitions were suffused with civic mindedness. Mitt's brother Scott said in an interview that their father was almost akin to "an evangelical preacher" in pressing his children to enter public service.
That religious term is telling. Part of the Romney family faith, Mormonism is steeped in community and civic responsibility. Whether within official church roles, civic organizations or public office, the Mormon ethic reflects an expectation of contribution and engagement from its leaders, and Romney's father pressed this point by example and exhortation.
I'm not so naïve as to think that either Romney's quest for the White House is a tale of moral virtue seeking public service. Rather, my point is that along with the personal ambition, competitiveness, and sense of having something important and perhaps even unique to contribute, that word-"contribute" has a real personal and religious resonance for both men.
What I'll call here this "service mentality" left Mitt Romney with an extreme disadvantage when he ran for the presidency in 2007 and it continued to do so up until relatively recently in this campaign. The issue was he really didn't seem to know why, specifically, he was running.
Of course, he wanted to win. Of course, he had confidence he could be an effective president. Of course, he wanted to implement broadly Republican policies. But this describes any of the many Republicans who have sought that office.
What Romney lacked until recently, was a heartfelt rationale for why, specifically he wanted to be president and what he would do if he got into office, and he owes that personal epiphany that provided answers to these questions to none other than Barack Obama!
I date that revelation, and that's what it seems to have been, to Barack Obama's much discussed and debated "you didn't build that" comment made on July 13, 2012 at a Virginia campaign event. Critics interpreted him to mean that individual success is somewhat of a fiction. why else specifically mention and mock those who think that they made because they were smart or worked hard.
The Obama campaign said it was only suggesting that every successful person had help, an anodyne interpretation supported neither by the president's words in full context, or his tone.
Mr. Romney quickly criticized the president for, as he put it, "attacking success." And he repeated his criticism for months. But you really have to see the early before and after videos of Mr. Romney on the stump to realize just how exercised he was about the president's words. He seemed truly upset and engaged in a way that had not been very evident before. Indeed, one observer wrote a column entitled, "Romney finds his campaign's rationale " and that seems about right.
But why did this of all the President's remarks animate and engage him? After all the Obama campaign had suggested that Romney might have committed criminal acts in his SEC filings. Romney's campaign demanded an apology, but that immediately debunked accusation didn't make it into the Romney's speeches.
One plausible answer is that the President's "you didn't build that" comments struck at the heart of Romney's claim to a successful adulthood and an important rationale for his candidacy. But so did the accusation that he had committed criminal acts at Bain, or that his heartless capitalism had been responsible for throwing people out of work and it was alleged-erroneously it turned out, even leading to the death of one worker's spouse because of lost heath care insurance.
In fact, the "you didn't build it" meme did something that accusations of criminality and his supposed complicity in death by avarice did not. It attacked the rags to riches basis of the iconic status of Mitt's father in his son's eyes.
And it did something else, equally bad if not worse, from Romney's perspective, I think. It attacked the premises of America's cultural foundation.
Will Herberg a sociologist of religion wrote in his seminal book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew that this country's real and most basic religion is more familiarly known as the American Way of Life. Think the Protestant Ethic without the religion. That is hard work, delay of gratification, perseverance, resilience, and deliberateness. In short, all the basic personal attributes that lead to success in this country and of country itself.
Herberg's insight is that each of the three religions he studied have assiduously aligned themselves with the American Way of Life and what is true of the three is even more true of Mr. Romney's religion Mormonism. The basic Mormon tenants of family, community, faith and hard work could hardly be more American friendly or more explicitly reflected and supportive of the American way of life.
In his comments, President Obama not only criticized Mitt Romney's success and his father's iconic triumph over his early social and economic adversity, but the very cultural foundation of the county that had given them both so much opportunity. Least there be any doubt about Mitt's feelings on this matter one need only recall that to the criticism that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he replied: ".. frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America."
It is a culture he wants to save not transform.
And now lastly, we come to the final difference between these two men and the presidential leadership they aspire to. President Obama still wants to transform this country; Mr. Romney wishes to preserve it.
And paradoxically, if Mr. Romney should win, he will owe a debt to the president for having provided him with the searing blast of insight that led him to understand, why, really he wanted to be president.
© 2012 Stanley A. Renshon