Latest update: December 2nd, 2011
The strongest attribute of any of the Republican candidates for president is that he or she is not named Barack Obama.
Obama’s unpopularity is such that reelection is hard to fathom, or stomach, but stranger things have been known to happen (like his election in the first place). His advantage lies in a built-in 40 percent of the vote – consisting of blacks, committed liberals, union members, and recipients of public handouts – though the unionists may have been turned off by the president’s decision to delay the Keystone oil pipeline that would have weaned the U.S. off Arab oil and provided tens of thousands of jobs to Americans. Oil’s well that ends well, he must assume.
The fear among Republicans is that no one candidate has gripped the imagination of the public or galvanized the support of barely a quarter of the electorate, much less half plus one. That foreboding sense – born of several snap conclusions – is misplaced.
No person seems presidential until he or she actually becomes president and some not even then. In November 2007, no one could have looked at Barack Obama and seen a “president.” Such a perception was laughable in the extreme. One can never compare a person who carries the trappings of high office with either civilians or lower level politicians. The entourage is different, the mode of travel, the absence of a presidential seal, the obvious presence of the Secret Service, the capacity to actually do things (or pretend to do things; see Obama’s speeches about student loan waivers), and, mostly, the necessity to talk only of the future, which is always speculative.
People tend to grow into the office, not just in the office, and so almost any of the candidates could easily fit the bill and be perceived as presidential one year into his or her term.
Consequently, the head-to-head polls are not as meaningful at this early stage, when sane voters have not yet coalesced around one candidate and therefore – as a display of partisanship – construe Obama as electable if their personal favorite is not nominated. However, is it credible that a Gingrich supporter would actually vote for Obama over Mitt Romney? Possibly, but highly unlikely, especially since the election will ultimately be a choice between Obama and Anybody Not Obama who is a functional human being. It is true that you cannot beat something with nothing, but as the election draws nearer, candidates begin to appear more plausible, especially as the field narrows.
The other factor that exercises people these days are the flaws that are perceived in each of the Republican candidates. It is a lot like the Jewish dating scene, where people go out with each in order to find the one trait that renders them unmarriageable. Of course each candidate is flawed; no one is perfect (except, apparently, the critics of each of the candidates). Nor is it rational or sensible to expect that a voter should agree with every single position of even a preferred candidate. (The wag said: “If two people agree on everything, then one of them is superfluous.”)
Certainly each candidate comes with weaknesses, vulnerabilities, ideological inconsistencies, questionable personal conduct, unpalatable positions – all because each is a thinking, breathing human being.
Thus, those who look for salvation to the non-candidates – Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, et al – don’t realize that if any or all of them (or others) entered the race, they too would be vilified within a very short time. That unhappy aspect of modern life keeps many fine though imperfect people out of politics. And some of the “perfect” candidates don’t measure up under even mild scrutiny. That is why we were never privileged to elect President Fred Thompson or President John Edwards.
Mindful of the Talmud’s statement (Yoma 22b) that a leader should have some skeletons in his closet in order to keep him humble, we must evaluate a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and look for the “best” and not the “perfect.” There is no perfect.
Additionally, the pundits and laymen who obsess daily on this process seem to forget that not a vote has been cast in either a caucus or a primary, and that polls are volatile. They reflect momentary perceptions but not the reality over time. It is, frankly, bizarre that disproportionate weight in the primaries is given to states like Iowa and New Hampshire that are hardly reflective of the rest of the country. But it is what it is, and undoubtedly after the votes are cast – within a few weeks – the field will be whittled down and an apparent nominee will appear, who will even begin to look somewhat presidential.
So, without expressing a personal favorite, here is the current racing form:
The Presumptive Nominee
It is Mitt Romney’s race to lose. He recognizes that, which is why he seldom allows himself to be interviewed, and prefers to control the dissemination of his message unimpeded by annoying media queries. He looks the part (important today – Lincoln in our era could not have won a primary or an election), has command of the issues, and scandals have yet attached to him. Indeed, he is criticized for looking perfect.
His papers and positions on Israel issues are solidly on the right wing of Israeli politics (indeed, the same can be said of all the candidates except for Ron Paul), and it impossible to imagine a President Romney ever oozing the contempt for Israel’s prime minister that President Obama does.
Sad to say, the main obstacle Romney has to overcome is the distaste that many evangelicals have for Mormons, whom they consider heretics, and that many conservatives see Romney as too pareve in an election in which the choice will be between meat and milk. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I can only assume that on Election Day, revulsion for Obama will cause these voters to cringe and vote for Romney.
In any event, I think most Americans are long past having a religious test for president, which the Constitution itself rejects. And the Mormon experience is, on a skeletal level, somewhat akin to the Jewish experience, so a Mitt Romney would have a much greater affinity for Jews than a Barack Obama – a disciple of the U.S.-hating, Jew-baiting Reverend Wright – could ever have.
What about Romney the flip-flopper? That is media talk. Most normal people change their positions on some issues during their lives, whether because circumstances change or maturity gives them a new perspective on old issues. The only people who never change their minds on anything are people who have stopped thinking.
It would seem that a President Romney would share the moral agenda of the American Right but, like President Reagan, would not do much about it. And Romney has the endearing habit of actually looking his opponents in the eye, and listening to – and responding to – what they are saying, all indicia of a leader. His main weakness is that his message is too elastic and spongy to attract the most energized Republican voters – Tea Party enthusiasts and the Christian evangelicals – who want a political revolution. Romney wants to continue business as usual, but done better, more intelligently and more effectively.
The Smartest Kid in the Room
Newt Gingrich blows away every listener with his mastery of the issues. He has not only thought through each of them, he has proposed solutions (in some cases enacted them into law) and revised them and proposed new solutions when the former did not work. A Gingrich-Obama debate would be riveting television from which people might actually learn something.
Gingrich has the charming quality of being able to apologize and to admit when he was wrong, a trait that comes in handy given his checkered personal history. (Asked the other night about a commercial he made with Nancy Pelosi about climate change, he answered, “It was the dumbest thing I ever did. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought it was a good idea at the time.” And he laughed.)
A Gingrich candidacy would make it easy on Democratic ad men, who would only need to trot out the “Gingrich=ogre, monster” ads from 1998 and 2000. His successes as House speaker are only now being recognized – four consecutive years of balanced budgets for which Bill Clinton claimed credit to all those who don’t comprehend that spending bills originate in the House. It was Gingrich who forced Clinton into balanced budgets, against the will of the Democrats at the time.
Can Gingrich overcome his personal baggage – affairs, three wives, the demonization by the press for whom Gingrich has little-disguised contempt? That is also possible under the ABO theory of this election, but still risky. He will be a human piñata for the media. Expect a tsunami of anti-Gingrich stories in the next two months dredging up past positions and peccadilloes.
Herman Cain possesses leadership qualities and business success that are well suited to the needs of this election. Still a little raw on the issues, his main problem is not necessarily the female accusers who have harmed his brand – which was the refreshing aura of the non-politician trying to right the listing American ship – with unproven accusations that might just backfire and energize his supporters.
Cain’s main problem is that the early states – Iowa, New Hampshire – do not cater to his strengths, and poor performances there will set the media train rolling to the theme of “Cain’s fall and decline” from which it is difficult to rebound. He does well in the polls, but that is not the same as success in individual states. Nonetheless, he can still be a formidable candidate – one reason why the accusations arose – if the female drumbeat ceases soon, because he is perceived as a straight-talking, solution-oriented businessman who rose from obscurity, lived the American dream and can cut deeply into Obama’s black base.
Rick Perry is a solid achiever whose candidacy has been undermined by his wooden and sometimes obtuse debate performances. His assets do not lend themselves to that format, which, in truth, is completely unrelated to the needs of the presidency. A president never debates anyone – he sifts through various issues and arguments and makes decisions. His recent stumble over the government departments he would shut down – he should’ve said ten, not three – only shows that he had over-rehearsed, and was parroting but not thinking.
He is done, but he will inevitably reappear in the future, better prepared for the rigors of the campaign. He reminds me of another Southern governor whose initial foray into national politics – a long-winded, incredibly tedious speech in support of Mike Dukakis at the Democrat Convention in 1988 that became the butt of jokes. But Bill Clinton stopped the laughter in 1992. Perry might be in the future another Clinton, only more honest.
The Daffy Perennial
Every election features candidates who always run, never win, but represent a sector of the electorate. That is the candidacy of Ron Paul, who has some good ideas on the economy, and an attractive libertarian streak that is undone by some wacky views on major issues. For a candidate to harp on proposals that will never come to pass (end the Federal Reserve), whatever the merits, is a waste of time. And Paul is a throwback to the isolationists of the 1930s, in a time when the world is much smaller and the dangers to America and its allies much greater. Although the politics differ, Paul seems to do a good Ross Perot imitation, but votes for him are wasted.
Not His Time
Rick Santorum is a solid candidate with good ideas but dogged by the one black mark on his record: he lost his own state – Pennsylvania – in a landslide Senate defeat just a few years ago. He is also running on a social values platform that, though worthy, is out-of-step with the needs and interests of this particular campaign. Santorum, a fine speaker and good debater, will likely drop out sometime in January, endorse Romney, and be in line for a cabinet position in a Romney administration.
It is difficult to pinpoint when Michele Bachmann’s campaign fell off the rails. She is an appealing candidate, well versed on most issues, and clearly possessing more depth and experience than Sarah Palin. She is fiery, unafraid and very competent, but has received something of the Palin treatment by the mainstream media: since she, too, cuts into a major Democrat voting bloc – women – the media attempt to marginalize her as extreme, backwards, just a pretty face, etc.
Nothing sticks but she is dying the death of a thousand cuts, and being ignored as well. A misstatement or two, all blown out of proportion to the actual significance, has not helped. Iowa is her first and last stand, but she will remain a formidable influence, and should. If she hadn’t criticized Romney harshly on health care, she might be in the running for the vice presidential slot. Her career is far from over.
The Unknown Who Will Remain UnknownJon Huntsman is a thoughtful fellow with some accomplishments under his belt who lacks only two assets in presidential politics: a base and other voters that the base can attract.
* * * * * In truth, all the candidates are credible (except for Ron Paul) and all would be improvements over the incumbent. It is actually a strong field of contestants who are honing their messages in the seemingly interminable debates. One who sees the field as weak is being influenced by the fact that no one looks presidential until he or she becomes president.
In time, and not very long at all – months – two or three of the candidates will stand head and shoulders above the rest and the choice will be clearer. And the road to recovery, if there is such a road, that much closer.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and author, most recently, of “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2014). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.
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