September 07, 2007
What's the best way to pick your President? What criteria best serve you to make a decision during primary/caucus/election season?
Public Statements and Debates: There's an interesting site at http://www.myelectionchoices.com/ that lists a number of statements made by presidential candidates, with the statements grouped by category. The idea is that you check the boxes next to the comments you agree with, and then when you're done, the site tallies up which candidates' stated positions are most in line with your own.
It's a fascinating idea, but once you go through the process, you realize just how flawed the premise is. The notion that we are most moved by what a candidate claims to represent turns out to be pretty much bunk.
Problem 1: all statements are weighed equally when the site tallies hits, but in reality, some issues are more important to me than others. The same is true for you, dear reader.
Problem 2: there's no consideration of statements you disagree with. Sure, Candidate Z may have made the most statements I agree with, but Candidate Z also made statements in favor of eating babies, and that's a show stopper for me. All it takes is one show stopper to cancel out all the good will of previous sympathy.
Problem 3: This one is the real killer -- they may say it, and they may even mean it, but that doesn't mean that they're going to do it. George W. Bush, in the run-up to the 2000 election, stated quite firmly that he was opposed to foreign adventures for the sake of "regime change". Bill Clinton, in 1992, promised to "end welfare as we know it." Bush the elder, before being elected in 1988, had promised "no new taxes." And so on. You may agree with what they say, but even if they mean it when they say it, presidential candidates don't always follow through.
Record of past performance: In ads for mutual funds and stocks, we are reminded that "past performance does not necessarily indicate future performance." The same goes for presidential candidates. Reagan was a fiscal bulldog as governor of California, overseeing tight, balanced, lean budgets. As President, he oversaw budget deficits that made Carter's look like, well, just peanuts. (Recall that, until the Reagan administration, Carter was universally lambasted in the press for running record deficits.) Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, was notorious as a philanderer, but as President... okay, okay. Sometimes past performance *can* be an indicator of future performance.
There's also the problem that there are few (if any) positions that one can hold that would give any real insight into what a person would likely do upon becoming President. How much foreign policy experience is a governor likely to have? How "executive" is a legislator likely to be? How sensitive to the subtleties of politics and compromise is a war hero likely to be? For all that, former governors and war heroes do have a tendency to make better Presidents than former Congressmen and Senators, but even if you take this as the trend, how do you select among multiple candidates who are all governors or generals?
Character: How well can we really know the character of a presidential candidate, and how relevant is their character to their candidacy? On the surface, it would seem like it *should* matter. And yet... Reagan, a divorcee, was arguably a more effective President than Carter, a born-again Christian -- assuming, for the moment, that divorcees have a defect in character that born-again Christians do not, and I concede that to be a faulty premise. (For that matter, if Reagan was slightly above-average or even average in intelligence, Carter was arguably the most intelligent man to hold the position in the 20th Century... and yet, again, we are faced with the interesting fact of who was more effective in the office.)
A more stark contrast can be seen in comparing Carter, a paragon of integrity, with Clinton, his antithesis. And yet, who was the more effective President? By how much? I contend that superior integrity did not a superior Presidency make. FDR might be an even better example of a man whose personal integrity left a great deal to be desired, and yet was one of the most effective Presidents of the 20th Century.
That said, there are some character issues that do seem to make a bit of difference. Confidence matters, as does decisiveness. Personal conviction and charisma certainly can contribute to a President's effectiveness. Although, as our current administration reveals, conviction is not an adequate substitute for occasional thinking.
Quick: name a candidate this year in the top three or four of your party of choice who is wishy-washy and uncharismatic.
So, what criteria works better than these?
Skip the debates. Forget about trying to figure out who is "best". Instead, I remind you of a quote I've posted here once before. I am increasingly convinced that Robert A. Heinlein had it right:
"If you are able to vote, then do so. There may be no candidates or issues you want to vote for... but there will certainly be someone or something to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong." -- Robert A. Heinlein
Wouldn't primary/caucus/election season be so much more interesting if we periodically voted a candidate *out* of the race, instead of always having to choose only one to nudge forward in the race?
September 21, 2007
I see that in this weekend's professional football matchups, the New England Patriots are favored to squeak past the visiting Buffalo Bills... by sixteen and a half points.
Sixteen and a half points.
I realize that the Patriots are probably the best team on the field at this early point in the season, but... sixteen and a half points? And sure, Buffalo didn't do so well last week, but... sixteen and a half points?
Wow. The oddsmakers haven't anticipated this much of a public beating since the Democrats nominated Walter Mondale. Ouch.
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