The members of The Rational Middle may disagree, but it is this writer’s opinion that the principle threat to our democracy is intellectual laziness. Terrorism, pollution, crime, and economic imbalance pale in comparison to the dangers of self-inflicted stupidity; we Americans too often choose to be ignorant out of a sense of expedience. Today’s campaigns are filled with ads that take simple and completely unrealistic positions given the facts. All Democrats who run under the presumption that Republican policies caused the recession and Republicans are therefore evil, fail the test of credibility. Every Republican politician now claiming to be able to grow jobs, cut taxes, and stop deficits are equally disreputable.
But here we are, in 2010, believing what we see crammed into expensive television spots filled with venom and bullshit. It isn’t the fault of the politicians; for all of our snide jokes and references to crooks and liars, we like them this way. We the people have proven that the politician best able to make his brand of b.s. smell the best will get our votes; or at least enough of them for a simple majority. This is one of thousands of spots on the net where the informed voter can go for reasoned argument and information. Too often, however, the front-line topics covered by the campaign ads are the very same discussed on these pages, and a little spice is in order. The Rational Middle will profile one commonly cherished Magic Wand every week for the next four. These topics aren’t the hot and sexy stories at the front of the political press, but they are ever-present notions bubbling under the surface of political thought. It is the hope that these will inspire conversation, as none (I believe) are amenable to simple black and white explanations.
The modern practice of politics is, too often, the art of attaching blame. Whether or not a politician is popular depends, not on his or her policies or tactics, but on the way their tenure is framed by the political media. Barack Obama rode to the White House on a wave of positive feeling; his campaign was more positive than negative and the media embraced his personal story. Once in office, he experienced the other side of that media embrace; the side where the media grows tired of positivity and embraces the vitriol and controversy that sells ads.
There is no room for quitters or whiners in politics. It is for that reason that Sarah Palin should go away, and Robert Gibbs should stay away from lame criticisms of left-leaning media. The public is fickle; they may not understand all of the intricacies of policy, but they know weakness when they see it. You can blame media conspiracies for only so long before the public realizes that you are simply searching for an excuse. When it comes to scapegoating, the public is prepared to accept only that application of blame that is sanctified by the media, not directed at the media. Politicians that are successful over the long term happen on that success by virtue of their ability to get the media to sanctify their scapegoating.
If I asked you which of these presidents, George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, spent a higher percentage of the federal budget relative to GDP on defense, what would your answer be? The “weak on defense” Carter committed an average of 25% of all federal spending to defense, W.’s father committed an average of just over 22%. In the eyes of the public, the strength of a president is often measures in the perception of dollars spent combined with public statements towards and about perceived enemies. Reality is often far removed from that perception.
Most of the important work on national security takes place behind closed doors and over secure channels. Public messaging in that arena is largely reserved for massaging public opinion in preparation for a new strategy or threat. But Americans vote largely on gut feeling. President Carter killed the B-1 program because it was an airframe loaded with developmental problems that was being designed to fill a role occupied by other systems. President Reagan used Carter’s ending of the program as a hammer in the election of 1980, then promptly restarted it when he took office. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, planners were hard at work finding targets to show off their systems. The B1 was conspicuous in its absence. The loss of that airframe didn’t slow down the political sideshow though. Contractors during Desert Storm, gave a good example of their standard operating procedure: they consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of their products, and were supported in this subterfuge by the D.O.D.