If I’ve learned anything after forty years in politics, it’s the fact that charisma, like beauty, exists far more in the eye of the beholder than within the character of a candidate. Any politician who embraces this madness from the crowd — popular adulation without limits — does so at considerable risk of wrenching disillusionment and disappointment once elected. Four years ago Barack Obama attempted to warn his supporters that he would not prove a perfect president — that he could only attempt to do his very best. No one was listening, and soon he found it easier to swim with the tide and speak of the hope and change the expectations of his supporters saw embodied in his candidacy. He is a sufficiently introspective leader that he must have recognized the risk he was taking.
It’s been easy for his critics to mock his victory speech in Grant Park where he asserted the time had arrived when we, acting together, would reverse the rising of the seas. This oblique reference to the threat of global warming was poetic and inspiring, and entirely disconnected from political reality. Too many Americans make far too much money warming the planet to provide anything more than lip service to deterring their assaults against the planet. The North Carolina legislature recently passed a law making it illegal to even mention rising tides. Now that should solve the problem! Why not resurrect King Canute and run him for Governor?
Even with Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, Obama found it difficult to implement his intended agenda. He was forced to compromise, to walk away from bedrock principles in favor of the possible. To their horror, many of his most ardent supporters discovered they had elected a politician rather than an Old Testament prophet. Much of the President’s time was diverted into performing the janitorial duties of bailing out an economy driven on the rocks by his predecessor. Nonetheless, much was accomplished, but not nearly enough for those who resent the slightest personal discomfort. The Tea Party was engineered as a vessel for their anger, and voters elected a Congress in 2010 that would thrive on obstruction. Rather than reaching for his goals, Obama was limited to staving off further catastrophes. Antipathy rather than respect was directed towards the President.
For nearly two years, Mitt Romney had been expected to emerge as his opponent for reelection. Governor Romney performed reasonably well during the Republican primaries in 2008, and, as the consummate management consultant that he is, the former Massachusetts Moderate adroitly reconfigured his 2012 campaign organization: first to win the nomination and then to evict the President from the White House. Unfortunately, this strategy required him to adopt a chameleon-like coloration before each new audience, or, as Jon Huntsman put it, he found an innate capacity to spin like “…a well-oiled weathervane.” Yet, no matter how forcefully he repeated bromides from the conservative catechism, a cloud of suspicion pursued Romney.
Tea Party Republicans attempted to elope with a half dozen Presidential lovers, each of whom the Romney campaign systematically destroyed beneath an onslaught of negative ads — and then followed up by summarily kicking the bleeding carcasses to the curb. Voters recognized this was a candidate more than willing to say anything, do anything and go anywhere in order to win. Whether this was viewed as admirable or reprehensible was more a question of how much individual Republicans wanted to win than to any set of abiding beliefs. Republican voters knew he was telling them what they wanted to hear, but he also seemed equipped to go toe-to-toe with the President.
Rather than trying to justify the ideological flexibility of which he is so evidently capable, Romney chose to deny its very existence. The career management consultant seems to prefer a pragmatic approach to public problems, expecting each to prove unique — that solutions can’t be offered until you complete the process of troubleshooting current policies and reviewing the books. Romneycare was just such an initiative. Consequently, he consistently refused to provide details or to adequately explain himself until he could collect all the facts.
This left voters with an impression of a man without an intrinsic core of convictions regarding right and wrong, much less forwards or backwards. Yes, he might be able to get the American economy moving again, but he appears just as likely to propel us off another cliff.
Finally, this election ultimately boiled down to a choice between an incumbent who had considerable difficulty making government collegial, yet who appears to have learned something from that experience, and a challenger who promised he held the magic key to achieving bi-partisan change. Of course we charged down that gold brick road four years ago and arrived at dysfunction junction — and a hollowed out presidency. A little wiser today, a scant majority of voters opted for the President they are hoping has changed enough to be somewhat wiser and smarter during the next four years. It’s certainly not a sure thing, but what ever is?
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and commentator on the political scene.