Tag Archives: John Kerry

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

Sleeves rolled up? Check. In front of flag? Check. Pithy podium slogan? Check. All glory to the Leader!

Mitt Romney’s campaign out-fundraised the re-election campaign of incumbent President Barack Obama again last month with over $100 million in donations taken in, to say nothing of what is going to the various Super PACs supporting his candidacy (with naturally, no coordination whatsoever, fingers crossed, honest to God, swear on his baptized father-in-law’s grave).  A seemingly unending reservoir of money dedicated to pushing a man with no convictions he will not abandon, no principles he will not set aside and no lingering shred of integrity he won’t compromise in a heartbeat of expediency into the powerful office in the world.  A man so utterly mediocre and lacking in empathy and imagination, indeed, in personality, that in a logical world he should barely register in the single digits of political support, stands a dishearteningly good chance of taking over in November – and who knows what happens then.

Yet Mitt Romney epitomizes how our notions of what constitutes leadership have been distilled, diluted and dismantled.  In the darkest archives of fan fiction we find the concept of the “Mary Sue” – the flawless new-to-canon character who saves the day repeatedly with a combination of irresistible charm, unfathomable skill and perfect breasts.  Mitt Romney has neither charm, nor skill, nor any breasts that I’m aware of, but he does share one notable trait with Mary Sue:  they are both as dull as dishwater.  “Mitt Romney” in a novel would be rejected by a publisher for being bland, unappealing and unbelievable, but in real life he’s perilously close to winning the Presidency.  The problem is, bland is the new black.  Bland is the new leadership – a trope which has been drilled into our heads by seeing too many Romney types waving to the crowd in TV ads as a faceless voice repeats “strong leader” as many times as the 30-second spot will allow.  See enough of these, as Goebbels would note, and the message starts to seep in, regardless of how antithetical it may be to the nature of the person being described.  In Canada, enough of us believe Stephen Harper is a strong leader not on any evidence that he’s shown in his actual style of governance, but because four successive election campaigns have said that he is (and more to the point, that whichever Leader of the Opposition he’s been facing isn’t).  This proroguing, speech-stifling, attack ad-funding, shameless crony-appointing former oil company mailroom boy with a massive inferiority complex rates first in all polls of the Canadian leadership scene.  And the rest of the world asks, with 34 million of you to choose from, that frickin’ guy’s the best you could come up with?  Just like the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. race and saying “Look, perhaps President Obama hasn’t been perfect, but really?  The guy who strapped the dog to the roof of his car?”

Romney locked up the Republican nomination not because he was a singular, inspiring figure, but because he was less insane than the other pretenders to the throne – Newt-Tiffany’s-Gingrich, Herman-9-9-9-Cain, Rick-Old-Testament-Santorum, Ron-I-don’t-believe-in-Social-Security-but-I-still-collect-it-Paul and Rick-What-planet-am-I-on-anyway-let’s-just-shoot-it-Perry.  Faced with the prospect of any of those characters with their fingers on the nuclear trigger, Romney sounded like a much safer bet, beliefs in magic underwear, baptizing dead relatives and Planet Kolob aside.  His blandness enabled him to emerge from the pack of the weakest contenders the Republicans have ever fielded.  And blandness combined with money enables him to pose a serious challenge to a President who has struggled with the worst economy since the Depression and an opposition Congress determined to see it stay that way in the cynical expectation that voters afflicted with Guy Pearce’s illness from Memento will turn to them to right it.  This somehow translates to Romney being perceived, against all sense, as a leader. U.S. progressives hope that the presidential debates will be Obama’s chance to demonstrate for good how empty a shirt Romney is, but they forget that John Kerry wiped the floor with George W. Bush during their three sparring matches in 2004 and still lost the election.  Proof of leadership is unnecessary; the appearance of leadership is enough, even if it’s all smoke, mirrors and flight suits.

David Letterman has famously said of Mitt Romney, “He doesn’t look like a President, he looks like the guy who plays the President in a Canadian made-for-TV movie.”  For many, that’s a dream candidate.  The guy who takes no stands that might possibly make him the slightest bit unpopular, best expressed by Marlee Matlin’s pollster Joey Lucas on a first-season West Wing:  “There go my people, I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”  Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed cannily that he and three of his contemporaries in the office reached the highpoint of their popularity before they had done anything.  Mitt Romney is at his best right now; there is no evidence whatsoever that he has it within him to “rise to the challenge of the office” and become a man of destiny.  One does not even get the sense that anybody particularly wants him to – infamous anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has said publicly that he doesn’t want a President who thinks, just one who signs whatever Congress puts in front of him.  As long as Mitt Romney can spell his name, Norquist and his supporters think he’s leadership material.  A bar set so low it’s hovering near the earth’s core.

For the majority of the right, it’s enough that Romney is not Barack Hussein Obama.  But let no one labor under the illusion that leadership and gravitas is acquired just by not being someone else.  An orange is not a pineapple just because it’s not a pear.  Romney has no vision, no plan, and fundamentally no real belief in the nobility of the office he aspires to.  The evidence is overwhelming:  Mary Sue Romney should not be President, and hopefully it doesn’t require four agonizing years of a Romney presidency for America to realize that.

Caveat elector

You can’t blame an un-housebroken puppy for making a mess on your living room floor.  Nor should anyone, in a democracy, feign shock at the actions of the stupendously incompetent who ride into office on waves of voter discontent and proceed to wreck the place.  As I’m writing this, the United States Senate has just passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding by the narrowest of margins a default brought on by the extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party who were swept into power in the 2010 midterm elections.  The Brothers Ford are threatening to balance Toronto’s books by… cutting books (i.e. libraries), as it turns out that all of the city’s fiscal woes cannot, in fact, be cured by eliminating the “gravy train.”  You can’t really blame these people for being unskilled and unfit to govern.  They didn’t put themselves in office.  We should blame ourselves for buying what they’ve sold without thoroughly kicking the tires first.

In politics, the simplest message is the most successful.  “I Like Ike.”  “Yes We Can.”  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  “Stop the gravy train.”  “He didn’t come back for you.”  So too does it often seem that the simplest people have the simplest time getting elected – for the simple reason that running a campaign of pandering is the simplest path to victory.  Tell people what they want to hear often enough and you’ll convince them.  Why?  Because democracy is a pain in the ass.  In a democracy, the governed are meant to stay informed, learn about issues, examine all sides of a problem and keep their representatives honest.  The problem is, nobody really wants to do that.  The majority of us are perfectly happy to leave governing to anyone who wants to, so long as we don’t have to.  The least we are asked to do is vote and many of us can’t even be bothered doing that.  Those of us who do bother are usually seduced by the infamous simple message.  “I don’t like taxes and this guy says he’s going to cut them, that’s good enough for me.”  Imagine interviewing someone for a job at your company – you have an applicant who has no prior experience, no qualifications for the position and just keeps repeating the phrase “Hire me and I’ll save you money.”  You’d be showing him the door faster than you can say “hard-working families.”  Yet politicians use the same strategy to find their way into highly-paid positions of authority where they can affect thousands, even millions of lives.

George W. Bush came from a legacy of failed business ventures and could barely pronounce half the words in the English language and he was placed in charge of the nuclear launch codes for eight tumultuous years.  I choose not to believe it was because the majority who voted for him were stupid.  It was the widespread laissez-faire attitude I’ve described above that favored his simple answers over the more complicated solutions Al Gore and John Kerry respectively were offering instead.  The irony is that governing is complicated.  Anyone who says it is simple is lying for votes.  Good governing is a dance of nuance, intelligence, curiosity, respect, and compromise when necessary.  Not everyone can do it and it demands minds that are sharp and inquisitive and not chained to ideology at the expense of reason.  A four-year-old who’s heard a slogan on TV can repeat it ad infinitum, but you wouldn’t consider putting him in charge of the Ministry of Finance.  You wouldn’t even put him in charge of a lemonade stand.

So let’s set our standards higher – if we do not demand more from candidates, if we continue to let them get away with pandering, pat answers to complex questions, if we continue to vote by picking the least of the worst – we should not be surprised when it turns out that the people we’ve elected are completely unsuited to handle the complex questions that will arise in the course of governing.  Because whacking the puppy with the newspaper after the fact isn’t going to do much to clean up the steaming pile lying in the middle of the floor.  Better yet, instead get a cat – they are smart enough to know to use the litter box in the first place.