H.L. Mencken is often quoted as saying, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
Nice try, George, but Mr. Mencken, a writer who died many years ago, is often quoted as saying other things, too. He once told an unruly child to “shut the hell up.” He also once said that he was “hungry.”
Great line, but Mencken got it wrong — at least when it comes to voters.
If it’s such a great line, then why is it wrong? Furthermore, why quote it, say it’s a great line, then say it’s wrong?
Ever since I planted my first lawn signs for a county judge as a high-schooler in Cleveland, I've been fascinated by campaigns and elections. Now, 30 years later — after working in the Capitol and the White House, serving in three Presidential campaigns, and covering three more as Chief Washington Correspondent for ABC News — I'm still fascinated.
What a precocious little high school kid- interested in an election for a totally insignificant office like “county judge.” This is clearly meant to do two things for the reader: One, it is supposed to alert the reader as to what a great, precocious high school kid Saint George was. Second, it should remind the reader of the Paul McCartney and Wings song “Band on the Run” (“the county judge who held a grudge”). While I don’t think anyone would disagree that Mr. McCartney’s work in Wings was nowhere near as important as what he did in the Beatles, I still think it’s better than any of the crap that St. George ever did (i.e., helping get Bill Clinton elected, and working for the MSM).
And I'm still convinced that, in most elections most of the time, voters get it right. The process works. As we head into the most exciting, historic, and high-stakes Presidential election of our lifetimes, here are some suggestions on how you can be an even better voter.
Of course you think the process works! You just said in the previous paragraph that YOU’RE part of the process! And of course you think this is the “most exciting, historic, etc presidential election,” since you’re one of the MSM bozos covering it.
But if you think the process works and most of the time voters get it right, why do you feel the need to offer suggestions on being a better voter? What makes you think you can help them anymore, especially if you don’t seem to think they need it?
Know What Matters to You
Start with a gut check. Sit down and really think about which issues are most important to you: national health care or national security? Global warming or the makeup of the Supreme Court? Consider what qualities you most prize in a leader: empathy, decisiveness, or intelligence? Candor or competence?
Why do I have to choose between “Candor or competence”? Why can’t I have both “global warming,” and a “supreme court”? Dammit, if I want both, as an American, I’m going to take them, and there’s nothing at all that St. George can do about it.
Then imagine that you are the President. What would be your top priority? Whom would you turn to for advice? Which principle or position would you be willing to stand by even if it put your whole Presidency at risk? How you size up the candidates should flow from how you answer those basic questions.
If I were president, there wouldn’t be any problems, would there? So why bother even thinking about this? I couldn’t get elected, because I tell it like it is, and I don’t put up with nonsense such as this essay that I’m fisking right now, St. George.
Use the Godfather Test
Political pollsters love the beer-buddy question — namely, to ask voters which candidate they'd most want to hang out with over a couple of cold ones or a cup of coffee. But I prefer to use the Godfather (or Godmother) Test.
What that means: Pick a candidate as if your child's life depended on it. While liking the politician should be part of your thought process, having a Best Pal in the Oval Office isn't enough. The decisions made by the next President will help determine whether your children will have to fight in wars, how dependent they'll be on foreign oil, and whether Medicare and Social Security will be there when they retire. Vote for the candidate who has the competence and character to guide your child — and the country.
Great advice: “Vote for children.” “The children are our future.” Geezus Goddam Christ, St. George, how long did it take you to come up with that one? Fifteen minutes? Or is it something you’ve discovered in all the time you’ve been interested in politics, starting when you first hung up that “Wings” poster in your front yard when you were in high school?
Oh, and by the way, you did a great job moderating that debate between Obama and Clinton earlier this year, St. George.
Find Out What Your Friends and Family Really Think
In addition to getting news from the TV, try to check out a solid newspaper every day. It will give you some breadth of coverage about the election and the context of the campaign. And, as you're making up your mind, don't be afraid to engage friends and family in debate. Not surprisingly, I disagree with the old saw that you should never discuss politics at the dinner table (although I do my best not to bore my toddlers). When I worked in politics, the best decisions I ever made came after conversations with my friends. So go at it — just try not to pick a fight at every meal.
“In addition to getting news from the TV, try to check out a solid newspaper every day. The only people who get their news from those sources should not be allowed to vote anyway, so why are you giving them advice, O Benevolent St. George of the MSM? Here’s a better idea: get on the internet, and ignore every piece of advice anyone in the MSM gives you. All my friends have blogs, so I guess I shouldn't actually find out what they think, huh?
By the way, did you catch that St. George has kids? They are the future after all. I wonder who their “godparents” are?
During the Debates, Focus on What the Candidates Say — and Do
Record numbers of viewers tuned in to this year's primary debates — and for good reason. They matter. Though face-to-face televised debates are a relatively recent phenomenon (the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 were the first ever), they've been key turning points in just about every campaign since.
Of course you think debates matter. You moderated one. You’re part of the MSM, and the MSM has an interest in ensuring that they “matter.” They’re “key turning points” because the MSM has done everything they can to make them into turning points. In fact, all that debates do is show you which candidate is better at biting his lip at just the right time, or which one pounds his fist on the podium three times instead of just two.
Both Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 might have been better off sticking with radio broadcasts. Many observers thought each had won his first televised debate on points, but Nixon was undone by bad makeup that failed to hide his 5 o'clock shadow, and Gore was undercut by reaction shots that caught him sighing and rolling his eyes while George W. Bush was speaking. Viewers were turned off.
And with this paragraph St. George shows just how useless televised debates really are. The losers lost because of superficial nonsense, not because of “points.”
Gerald Ford's bid against Jimmy Carter in 1976 stalled at the second debate, when Ford declared there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Meanwhile, Bill Clinton sealed his 1992 victory during a second debate with George H.W. Bush. As Clinton engaged a questioner on the economy, Bush was caught checking his watch. The metaphor stuck.
I could have beaten Ford and Bush in a debate. BFD, St. George.
While nothing in a campaign can match the demands that a President will face in the White House Situation Room, debates can offer a glimpse of how candidates perform when everything's on the line. Watch how they handle the pressure — and give extra credit for spontaneity. Are they thinking on their feet or reciting canned talking points? Which one can defuse a difficult moment with humor, recover from a gaffe with grace, or pounce on an opponent's mistake without seeming too mean-spirited?
Again, everything about “debates” is so micromanaged by the campaigns of each candidate that they are no-pressure and meaningless. Except to people in the MSM, who want you to watch so they can pump up their ratings.
And why the hell do I want to see a candidate “recover from a gaffe with grace,” or with anything at all? How about not making the gaffe? Why should a candidate “defuse a difficult moment?” And what the hell do I care if a candidate seems “mean spirited”? I’m not trying to find a godparent for my kids here, I’m trying to find a president, dumbass.
Wit and showmanship are important. They feed into what political scholar Richard Neustadt considered the most essential Presidential power — "the power to persuade."
Yeah, I know of someone else who was an elected official who had the “power to persuade.” Perhaps you’ve heard of him- his name was “Adolph Hitler.” Turn off the Wings music for five minutes and think about this, St. George. Do you really want another Hitler in the White House?
Balance It All Out
Where the candidates have come from, what positions they take on the issues, whom they listen to, and how they make decisions all matter. No one quality is the key to success. Take experience, for example. It's hard to imagine a President coming to the White House with a more stellar resumé than James Buchanan, who had been a Congressman, a Senator, an ambassador, and Secretary of State. But he failed miserably as President — passive in the face of a looming Civil War.
I can’t believe that Buchanan! All he had to do was read our history textbooks and he would known the goddam Civil War was looming! What a miserable failure!
Nor can a candidate who promises change necessarily achieve it. Jimmy Carter came in after Watergate promising "a government as good as the American people," but he ended up not having the political skill to deliver one. Experience, judgment, and competence all have to be weighed in equal measure.
Really? You don’t think Carter delivered “a government as good as the American people”? After all, he did get Reagan elected. And as we all know, Reagan is the greatest of all great Americans, and certainly the pinnacle of Americanism. Didn't Barack Obama himself say something like that?
And think hard before disqualifying a candidate for being a flip-flopper. Flip-flopping can be the most devastating criticism — and deservedly so, if the candidate shifts with the political winds. But history also is full of Presidents who changed their minds for the right reasons. The Louisiana Purchase was the kind of power-grab that ran against Thomas Jefferson's deepest principles, but he came to see it as a wise investment in America's future, and supporting it turned out to be one of the best Presidential decisions ever. Abe Lincoln promised the South that he wouldn't abolish slavery. Thank goodness he changed his mind.
TWO examples from two of the greatest human beings who ever lived. That’s all you can come up with? You’re slipping, St. George. I’m just glad you did better research when you moderated that debate between Obama and Clinton earlier this year. Thank gosh for you.
Always Remember That Your Vote Counts
It's a cliché, but look at recent experiences. The 2000 election was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court when the official count showed 537 votes in Florida separating Bush from Gore — a difference of less than one-tenth of one percent of the state's electorate. Flip fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio, and John Kerry is President in 2004. Nixon would have won in 1960 with 5000 shifted votes in each of Illinois and South Carolina, and 12,000 in New Jersey.
Yes, your vote is important. Yours and 536 others in one state. Yours and 59,999 in another state. Yours and 4,999 others in each of two states, and 11,999 in another. That’s how important your vote is. Because there were only two candidates running in each of the elections mentioned. If only those votes had flipped to “the other candidate,” things might have been different.
How about this: If only every voter in America would stop voting for Democrats and Republicans, we could REALLY change the country. A shift of only a few million votes here and there, and we could have a 50-50 split between Libertarians and Greens. How would you like that, St. George?
Who knows if this year's contest will be a cliffhanger? What I do know is that 2008 is shaping up as one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history. More Americans will vote this year than ever before. I'm confident that we will prove Mencken wrong — one more time.
Consequential for you, St. George of the MSM. It’s just more of the same for everyone else. One more asshole winning another election, when only a few million shifted votes would have changed the whole dynamic.
By the way, St. George, Mencken is still dead, so he really couldn’t give less of a shit whether or not we “prove him wrong”.