If I were to compare either Mitt Romney or President Obama to the model I hold in my head of an ideal president, both would miss the mark by about the same distance, but for different reasons. Unfortunately we only have two choices at this point so I thought I'd help the three or four independent voters in the United States work through the decision. I'm neither Republican nor Democrat, so I have the advantage of being able to start writing this post without knowing which side I'll come down on. This is as close as you can get to objectivity.
Let's start by examining President Obama's record on the economy. He inherited a massive debt and added quite a bit of his own in the name of stimulus. The vast majority of economists agree that cutting spending or raising taxes when the economy is in free fall would kill it. That's why I assume that a President Romney, or any other president, would have done exactly the same thing President Obama did. Any president would have followed the consensus of credible economists. That's the only way to cover your ass.
When the shit is heading toward the fan all zealots become pragmatists. That's probably why Chief Justice John Roberts abandoned conservative ideology when he cast a deciding vote to protect Obamacare, thus saving the credibility of the Supreme Court. Likewise, a conservative Republican president would have done pretty much what President Obama did and run up the debt to keep the economy from the ledge.
Then there's the question of whether the Republican effort to thwart President Obama at every turn is the President's fault or Congress' fault. I think "fault" is the domain of non-thinkers. A better question to ask is what will work in the future. We can be sure another four years of gridlock will be risky. I think the advantage goes to a Republican president because the Democrats in Congress are less Kamikaze-like and more willing to compromise.
The next question that must be asked is whether an effective get-things-done Romney presidency would be a good thing or a bad thing. Here we have very little to go on. If you look at his track record, he seems the ultimate gamer. No matter what game you drop him into he learns the rules and finds a way to win. Examples:
- School (excelled)
- Business (excelled)
- Family (awesome)
- Church (leader)
- Governor (won)
- Olympics (fixed it)
- Presidential primaries (won nomination)
While some observers might find his lack of philosophical consistency a problem, I see it as a plus. He's a pragmatist. If he were running for the job of Satan he would say he's in favor of evil, at least until he got the job and installed central air conditioning in Hell. To put it more bluntly, it's not his fault that so many citizens are idiots and he has to lie to them just to become a useful public servant.
If you were to compare Romney and Obama on raw talent, I think it would be a tie. If you ask what sorts of things Romney would do that differ from what Obama would do, I think the answer is 100% unpredictable. I think Romney would talk like a good conservative and govern toward the pragmatic center, just as Obama talked liberal and governed in the center. While both men would probably govern toward the middle, only one of them has a decent chance of getting something through Congress. Advantage: Romney.
One big advantage in rejecting President Obama for a second term is that it reinforces the idea that politicians who don't find a way to succeed - no matter the reason - should be fired after the first term. We hold CEOs of public companies to that standard and no one complains about that because it works. A CEO doesn't get to blame his competition for his bad performance. He has to overcome the competition or get fired. It's a good system for everyone but the CEO, which is exactly how it should be.
I often hear Democrats saying the main reason to favor a Democrat for president is to make sure any Supreme Court nominations are liberal-leaning. That only matters if one can predict the sorts of cases that will come before the court in coming years. It also assumes justices vote the way observers predict they might and we know that doesn't always happen. All things considered, I think this is a fair tie-breaker if you assume Romney and Obama would be similar in their handling of the economy and international affairs. But I would caution against overweighting this factor because I don't know how many Supreme Court decisions in the coming years will affect your life in a meaningful way.
One of the big advantages that Obama had going into his initial run for president is that citizens knew that electing an African-American president would have positive social implications. It sends every right signal about what the country wants to be, even if it hasn't quite reached it yet. We're the country where anyone can be president if he or she works hard enough. That's a powerful idea. But now, four years later, that idea has served its purpose. The country doesn't get much psychological benefit from a second Obama term. On the flip side, a second-term president has the freedom to take some risks, at least until the final two years of his lame duck status.
One of the strongest features of Romney's personality is his ability to change his mind. Opponents call it flip-flopping. I call it pragmatism. Every flip-flop served a transparent purpose. You can almost see him wink to the smart people in the country, as if to say, "This flip-flop is just for the benefit of the dumb people. Don't worry."
My prediction is that a Romney presidency would mark the end of the Tea Party. I think the Tea Party is mostly an anti-Obama movement, i.e. largely racist. Once a white Republican is in office, the Tea Partiers will dissolve back into the mainstream. So if you think Tea Party activists are polluting the system, the non-obvious solution might be a Republican president.
What about tax policies, class warfare, and the rich getting richer? My guess is that Obama can never raise taxes on the rich because Congress would block it. But a Romney presidency might succeed in closing some loopholes for the rich as part of a larger compromise on the debt. I think the non-obvious path to raising taxes on the rich might be a Republican president working out a deal with Democrats in congress. I see no hope that President Obama could push through any increase in taxes on the rich.
We hear a lot of campaign talk about jobs, but I don't think a president has much impact on employment rates. I call that a tie.
I've heard liberals argue that Romney is a big money guy who would use his presidency to make the rich even richer because those are his people. That argument assumes Romney sees his self-interest as best served by making the rich richer. I think he's driven by Mormon principles to make the world a better place. Say what you want about the plausibility of the Mormon religion, but those folks are the real deal when it comes to helping their neighbors. I think Romney is steeped in Mormonism, and while he's clearly interested in his own success, my impression is that his ambition is inseparable from his Mormon impulses to make the world a better place. The last thing I'm worried about is his motives.
Likewise, I think President Obama's ambition for himself and his family is tied to making the country a better place. I don't think he's a secret socialist or trying to destroy America. He's a pragmatist trying to do whatever works, which at the moment is almost nothing. In terms of character and motives, I'd call the candidates a tie.
Given all of that, I'd say President Obama would be a better choice for liberals who prefer a liberal-leaning Supreme Court and accept the risk of falling off the fiscal cliff because the government is gridlocked during a second Obama term.
If you prefer a more conservative Supreme Court, Romney is your man. But you have to accept the risk that his economic policies might be more pragmatic and middle-of-the-road than you hoped.
If you're a racist, of any ethnicity, none of the other factors matter. You already made up your mind. The rest is rationalization.
If you are a fan of government gridlock, under the theory that the best government is the one the does the least, President Obama is the best choice. It's a safe bet that he wouldn't get much done in a second term.
If unemployment is the main thing that matters to you, I think you have to accept the fact that neither candidate has much control over it. But Romney is more likely to get something done, either good or bad. If you assume government inaction will lead to economic doom, the definition of insanity comes into play here. Insanity is doing the same thing you were doing and expecting a different outcome. By that line of reasoning, reelecting President Obama is a sign of mental illness. If you think Romney has only a 10% chance of improving things, but a gridlocked government under President Obama means certain economic doom, the sane person takes the 10% chance of survival. But keep in mind that you're only guessing on the odds.
My prediction is that President Obama will run the table during the debates and easily win reelection. The wild card, which is starting to play out, is if Romney makes just one more strategic flip-flop, this time on the topic of medical marijuana. His vice presidential pick, Ryan, has already stated he thinks the question should be left to the states. Normally a presidential candidate lets his pick for vice president float ideas to see how they perform. If the public likes the idea, the top guy adopts it. If the candidate for vice president gets hammered by the media, the candidate for president spins it as not important, taken out of context, or going off the reservation temporarily. We just saw Ryan float the idea of states making their own decisions on medical marijuana and he got zero blowback. It sounded conservative and reasonable. The stage is set.
No true conservative would change his vote to Obama just because Romney came out in favor of keeping the federal government out of state business, including medical marijuana. But plenty of folks would find that topic important enough in their daily lives to vote for Romney even if they don't like anything else he has to offer. Marijuana users are about 7% of the population. That's enough to decide the election.
If I'm right about Romney being the ultimate pragmatic, flip-flopping, gamer, he'll follow Ryan's lead on states' rights, lose every debate and still win the election by a hair. Is that a good thing? I have no idea.