By Alan Bean
In a surprising eleventh-hour move, Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Barack Obama. This doesn’t mean the New York mayor is happy with the president’s performance; but Obama’s tepid embrace of the global warming issue seems to have tipped the balance. Bloomberg agrees with the Democrats on most social issues and generally sides with the Republicans when the conversation shifts to economics.
Until recently, Bloomberg has been critical of both Obama and Mitt Romney for substituting soundbites for a substantive discussion of the burning issues. He was particularly enraged by the non-answers both candidates produced in the second debate when asked for their thoughts about assault weapons. Bloomberg accused both men of talking “gibberish” because they feared the political consequences of addressing the issue honestly.
But the mayor should cut these guys a little slack, and so should we. I have been extremely frustrated by Barack Obama’s policy response on a number of fronts. He has avoided the distressing state of our criminal justice system, he refuses to issue pardons and grant commutations, and his policy of mass deportation is nothing short of disgusting. His handling of the economy has generally been sensible, but too many of the people who created the mess in the first place have been recruited to deal with its consequences. We needed a new approach but, fearful of offending big donors on Wall Street, Obama stopped short of genuine reform and ended up offending the entitlement-addicted financial sector anyway. He has talked a lot about green technology, but has been largely silent (especially during the current campaign) on the frightening issue of global warming. All of this has been terribly disappointing.
That said, none of Obama’s moves have particularly surprised me. The man is a politician, and that means his bottom line is re-election. All the positions (or non-positions) I criticized in the last paragraph were based on shrewd political calculation. Why tell the truth about assault weapons, mass incarceration, immigration and climate change when it would spell political disaster?
Left-leaning pundits have been appalled by Mitt Romney’s etch-a-sketch reinventions. It is common, of course, for politicians to play to the base during the primary season, then shift to the center for the general election. But this is normally a matter of emphasis and tone; rarely do you see a politician swap Tea Party convictions for the moderate middle, but that’s essentially what Mr. Romney has done.
The Economist, a British news magazine with a moderate social slant and a fondness for conservative economics, just released their own half-hearted endorsement of Barack Obama, largely for the same reasons Mr. Bloomberg stated. Barack might be a bit liberal on economic issues, they say, but Mitt is too inconsistent to be taken seriously.
But why is the Republican candidate lurching from left to right and back again? Because he must. First, he had to toss the Tea Party a little “severe conservative” red meat; now he must assure center-right independents that he will do nothing crazy. I doubt Romney derives pleasure from all this shape-shifting; but it’s his only path to electoral success.
In short, the two presidential candidates are unapologetically political. And can you really blame them? Mayor Bloomberg is New York mayor because his blend of Wall Street-friendly economic views and moderate-to-liberal social opinion is the perfect fit for his environment. Did he adopt this mix of opinions in order to get elected? Who knows? But he owes his political success to his carefully selected mix of opinions. If he had to dodge and obfuscate to stay in office, he’d do it. You know he would, because he’s a politician.
Politicians are not free to speak their minds. Neither are you and I, for that matter. Most of us are ideological chameleons who take on the political hue of our surroundings. Those who harbor dreams of social advancement, in business, religion, or politics, keep their political opinions to themselves. When you run for president the stakes rise exponentially.
We would all like to vote for the woman who calls it like she sees it, the man who “tells it like it is” (as we used to say in the innocent 1960s); but in the political game, there is a name for people like that: losers. By the time a politician is positioned to even think about higher office, the realities of the political world pretty much dictate the acceptable range of belief. Way deep down, you are free to think what you will; but your public persona must adapt to the realities of the political marketplace. It isn’t long before the way-down-deep part of you conforms to the political facade. You get to choose your political party, but even that decision is largely dictated by circumstance. Like virtually every other smart Democrat in Texas, Rick Perry switched sides–if he wanted to get elected, what was the alternative?
Eventually, the Republican stance on immigration issues will soften. It has to. For the time being, the GOP gains more from demagoguing the immigration issue than they would get from courting Latinos. At least, that’s their political calculation. As the political influence of Latinos rises, Republican candidates will adapt. The alternative will be political suicide.
For the time being, Democrats can win minority support by positioning themselves just to the left of the Republicans, but as the red party shifts Romney-like to the center, Democrats will be forced to the left. The blue team’s dilemma has always been to win minority votes without alienating too large a swath of the white majority. Advocates who expect politicians to stand on principle will always be disappointed. A few politicos have the luxury of taking principled stands–but the the honest brokers rarely wield real power.
If you were stranded on a desert island with Barack Obama or Mitt Romney you would be amazed by their subtlety and insight. Relaxing under a palm tree, sipping the juice of the coconut, either man would say things you never thought you’d hear from a politician. These are experienced world-travelers with Harvard educations and they’ve picked up a thing or two along the way. But insert these guys into a political debate and ask them an honest question about gun control and you’ll get gibberish. Every time. They’re politicians; what else do you expect?