Wednesday, December 5, 2007

You Too Could Be a Stupid President Someday


Tonight’s Lolita Bar debaters (on the topic of the military and peace) are interesting, among other reasons, in that they’ve both worked for people who ran for president. Sarah Federman worked for the Clintons, famous for adjusting their positions to boost their popularity. John Carney worked for Pat Buchanan, who is not famous for that reason (indeed, the least accurate political prediction I ever made — on a website edited by J.R. Taylor that went on to be absorbed into, oddly enough — was probably my 2000 claim that Buchanan would use his newfound populism as an excuse to moderate his views and thus pick up votes). Not coincidentally, the Clintons got into the White House (and may do it again) while Buchanan never came close.

And that’s fine, but it’s a reminder that the primaries often start out with the principled, ideological candidates (for good or ill) doing well — and exciting the intellectuals, whether they’re supportive or opposed — and then, to the befuddlement of ideologues like me, the seemingly most amorphous, doubletalking, and/or bland candidates somehow rising to the top. Ideologues on both sides thus spend the year or so of the primary process thinking, “Well, the public didn’t pick my A candidate, but maybe they’ll at least pick my B choice…no, they didn’t but at least I can hope they pick C…oh, no, they’re not going to pick F are they? Why? This can’t be happening, though I guess he’s still better than the other party…sort of.” I had only just started watching Steve Forbes — who himself wasn’t quite libertarian enough for me — back around late 1998 or early 1999 when a Republican activist friend of mine first said that George W. Bush would “obviously” be the GOP nominee, and since he wasn’t then the sort of politician who intellectuals paid any attention to or who seemed to be of any particular ideological interest, I was taken aback. Then she explained to me how impressive a state-by-state “operation” Bush had even back then and I was reminded that philosophy has little to do with it.

A neat trick to pull off, if you want to be president, is to be sufficiently unprincipled that you can claim to believe — by an amazing coincidence — whatever is politically expedient while being sufficiently warm that you can emote convincingly about each position that you pick. Huckabee insists (for now, during the primary stage) he is a “principled conservative,” but by an amazing coincidence, despite a barely-articulated philosophy, he has been led to believe that (popular) conservative positions such as support for gun rights, border enforcement, Bible “inerrancy,” and opposition to the IRS are true and that (popular or at least popular in strategically valuable places) liberal positions such as environmental regulation, more education spending, farm subsidies, and taxing other people are also true. If conservatives have been widely disappointed by Bush’s performance, despite the warnings we had that he would be mushy on many issues, they shouldn’t be naive enough to think they’d be happy with a President Huckabee.

But he comes across as warm and easy-going, which may be all that matters. In fact, regardless of what survey respondents are telling callers about their reasons for suddenly liking Huckabee — such as the fact that he was a minister — I’d be willing to bet, if we had telepathy and could ever know why people really develop their political preferences, that the funny ad where he’s endorsed by Chuck Norris would be found to be key. That’s just not the sort of thing one admits during a survey — though I’ve long said that one of America’s most conservative and most libertarian traits is our fondness for the action-movie ethos that says you mind your own business until physically threatened and then shoot back, so there’s no shame in following Chuck Norris’s lead. It’s just not the sort of thing people are prepared to articulate, intellectuals having so rarely expounded upon and defended this ethos — aside from the aforementioned J.R. Taylor, of course.

So I like Huckabee being “Chuck Norris-approved,” but the thought, for instance, of having the first president (at least in the modern era, and despite Bush’s openness to discussing intelligent design) to reject evolution is troubling — he was one of the three GOP candidates to raise his hand when asked if he held that position, though he clarified/waffled with a God-plus-evolution position later, probably not the last clarifying/waffling we’ll see Huckabee do.

The press and the left, I would expect, will not forget Huckabee’s anti-Darwinianism, but as I fear politicians are increasingly aware, the public has so little grasp of science that there’s barely any downside to taking unscientific positions if those positions are important to a few of your constituents (note that even on the topics ostensibly related to his background as a minister, I do not for a moment assume that Huckabee’s position arises from pure conviction, nor should you). And it’s not just the U.S. public that’s apathetic about science, despite what you sometimes hear — Michael Malice, who by the way will be next month’s speaker at Lolita Bar (on January 2), linked to a video of a big French audience being unsure whether the Sun orbits the Earth or vice versa, a relatively simple concept compared to evolution — and a side effect of people being ignorant in general, as Chris Nugent reminds me with this (non-science-related) clip of a former American Idol star answering a geography question [UPDATE 12/6/07: And, for completeness's sake, here is Miss Teen South Carolina on geography, e-mailed to me by Reid Mihalko].

(What really baffles me about the French audience — which I’m sure is no more ignorant on the question than a U.S. audience would be — is not so much that many of them think the Sun orbits us but that they presumably don’t think the Moon does — perhaps they’ve been watching too much Space: 1999, beautiful and fast-paced though that 2001-influenced opening sequence is, and a marked improvement over the interestingly similar opening from producer Gerry Anderson’s older show, UFO, which now looks a bit like the Austin Powers version of Space: 1999. I owe Gerry Anderson a great deal: not only did he inspire me to plan a party to celebrate September 13, 1999 — which I ultimately canceled in favor of just having people go to Liz Braswell’s separately-planned Space: 1999 party, clear evidence I know nerds — but he is also the man behind my favorite show from childhood, Thunderbirds, which to my mind, thirty-four years after I first saw it, and over forty years after it aired, still has the best opening sequence in TV history.)

In any case, in this year’s variation on the usual primary-season decline in hopes and principles, I may well look back on early 2008 and think that my thoughts went something like: “Ron Paul! But if that’s not catching on, maybe Thompson — oh, I mean Giuliani, who of the three appears to be the still-viable one [and at this point, Eric Dondero gets overly excited]…oh no, I mean Romney, if I can stomach him…wait — Huckabee? This can’t be happening…” and so on until Hillary or something even worse is securely nestled in the Oval Office, and everyone I know is saying, “Well, this wasn’t my first choice, but we’ll see what happens.”

A thought that might spare intellectuals such disappointments and disillusionment in the future — or just drive them to suicide: I saw a speech by pollster Frank Luntz, and he argued that intellectuals need to get over their naive belief that the candidate’s positions matter to the public. His extensive surveying of focus groups suggests that the “Would you want to have a beer with this candidate?” personality test is by far a greater predictor of popularity, since the public can’t really keep track of even the simplest list of candidate positions anyway (and words suggestive of strong ideological positions — such as “privatize” — tend to alarm the focus groups, while words so broadly popular as to be near-meaningless, such as “family” and “work” and “democracy” are very, very popular). Both Huckabee and Hillary have learned not to get too hung up on the consistent-positions thing (Huckabee having raised taxes in Arkansas but railed against the IRS on the campaign trail, for instance), but he is generally thought to have an edge on her in the warmth department, so maybe we’ll have a President Huckabee yet, evolution help us all.


D------ said...

One thing I advocate is abolishing the presidential primary system and going back to the “smoke-filled rooms,” and having party leaders discuss and pick the candidates.

I support it for non-ideological reasons such as reducing the cost of campaigning, getting better-quality candidates.

Do you think the smoke-filled room approach would result in more ideological candidates, more moderate or pragmatic candidates, or no real difference to the primary system?

Todd Seavey said...

Jeez, I don’t pretend to any expertise on that question, but my guess would be that no primaries would make things less demagogic, more apparatchik — which could go either way in terms of ideological content, but perhaps on balance the populist-demagogic-primary route is _more_ likely to produce (often bad) ideologues, so if I want ideologues, perhaps I should count my blessings that we have primaries. I want _better_ ideologues, of course, but then, doesn’t everyone?

D------ said...

Maybe Luther should run for president. He seems to inspire and lead others,

Scott said...

You would think Bush would have discredited the would-you-have-a-beer-with-this-guy test for picking a president for all eternity (especially since it would have to be a non-alcoholic beer in Bush’s case). But apparently not.

As for bringing babck smoke-filled rooms, we’d have to un-ban cigarettes first.

Eric Dondero said...

I can’t stand Huckabee. But did you know he’s “Ted Nugent approved”?

Bizzarre. Huckabee is THEE MAN of the Nuge.

Christopher said...

And speaking of stupid…Romney: “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

Pretty impressive to come up with a statement that’s philosophically AND historically incorrect for one of your defining campaign themes. But I hear that he’s going to get endorsements from King Kong Bundy and the drummer from White Snake, so…

Todd Seavey said...

Well, even our swell Deist early presidents were prone to say republican virtues rooted in religious beliefs are what keep people from needing earthly, more coercive restraints, so while I disagree with his basic premises, I don’t think he’s out of line with traditional (and mostly harmless) American thinking here.

I’d be more disturbed if he said, for instance, “We need religion, not political freedom,” which is the basic Islamist-type and garden-variety authoritarian position — or even if he thought true freedom just _is_ adherence to religion, as some of the early Progressives thought (as will be discussed in this month’s Book Selection in a few weeks, about Jonah Goldberg’s book).

And as my harmless and seemingly secular friend Ryan Sager wrote in _The Elephant in the Room_, “religion + freedom” (closely related to “socially-conservative + fiscally conservative” or “conservative + libertarian”) has historically been the GOP’s winning formula.

As for endorsements (for ex-minister Huckabee) from the likes of Chuck Norris, Ted Nugent, and wrestler Ric Flair, note that _January_’s Book Selection will be _Made in America_, co-written by libertarian Michael Malice…and Ultimate Fighting champion Matt Hughes — and you _know_ the world’s greatest grappler could take down even Chuck Norris with his mixed martial arts mastery. So liberty wins once more.

Christopher said...

I’m surprised you think the notion that “freedom requires religion” and will “perish” without it is harmless. But as has been noted before, living in NY (or MA) one is pretty well protected from the less tolerant among our Jesus-freak brothers. Were you an open atheist in west Texas or Louisiana, you might find that kind of mentality less harmless.

Todd Seavey said...

You think _he_ seems too theocratic, think how alarmed I was for a moment when D., above, suggested “Luther” running for president.

Then I thought maybe he meant Luthor (who really was president — in fiction, I mean) and was even more alarmed. Then I watched the clip and understood.

People seem to survive living in Louisiana and Texas, but the drawbacks to such an existence will be addressed in the _February or March_ Book Selection, _Atheist Manifesto_ by Michel Onfray — a Frenchman, no less. I’ve got it covered.

I’ll bet he knows the Earth orbits the Sun.

D------ said...

Or maybe these two can run as a ticket,

Todd Seavey said...

To quote The Hoff (as fiscal policy): “I tried to save the world — but I forgot to save myself.”

To quote Gary Coleman (as sound foreign policy not so unlike the position that prevailed at last night’s Debate at Lolita Bar on military matters): “Don’t give me any of that Doctor Doom jive!”