After he lost the 1992 Presidential election to Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush reportedly confided that one of his major political problems was “the vision thing.”
The first President Bush did not appear to voters to have a sense of where he wanted to take the country. At every level of government, and especially President, voters want leaders with vision. And vision is just one more leadership quality that is noticeably absent in Mitt Romney – unless, of course, what you want is “rear view vision.”
In the four and a half decades I have consulted or managed election campaigns, one thing has become indisputably clear. Elections are not fundamentally decided by debates about issues, or economic policies, or ideologies. Voters choose between candidates – between living, breathing human beings. And they make those judgments in the same way we make judgments about whom we want as a boss, or a friend or a spouse. Voters evaluate a series of character qualities and decide who they want to be their leaders.
Don’t get me wrong. The economic situation, positions on issues and policies and ideologies definitely affect voter evaluation of these candidate leadership qualities. These questions help us decide who we believe is on our side, who is an effective leader, who is committed to principle rather than simply his or her own success. These are critical questions for voters. But in making their decisions, voters – and especially low-information swing voters – don’t generally make detailed analyses of policy positions – or parse candidate statements. They make their decisions based on judgments as to which candidate possesses these leadership qualities, and others that are often even more intuitive. Into the decision mix go qualities like who respects us, who has integrity, who is self-confident, who is likeable and makes an emotional connection, who inspires us – and who has a sense of vision.
In this fall’s election these more intuitive factors will play an especially important role in the voting decisions of the historically low number of remaining swing voters. Last week, New York Times reporter Rebecca Berg profiled these swing voters – noting that many are low-information voters who rarely follow politics. The Times story describes Curtis Napier, a 52-year-old, swing voter from Ohio who says he does not yet have enough information to decide what to do in November.
“Between working full time for a fabrication company and attending school part time for a degree in manufacturing engineering, he said consideration of the presidential election was an afterthought,” wrote Berg.
“In 2008, Mr. Napier drew much of his information from the presidential debates, in which he says, ‘McCain seemed to be distracted most of the time when he talked, and Obama seemed to be an educated man who has focus.’”
In the end, swing voters will make an intuitive judgment about which of the two Presidential candidates they want to trust as their leader.
Why do voters care about vision? The great baseball player Yogi Berra used to say: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Voters want leaders who know where they are taking us in the same way that you want a pilot who knows how to get to the correct airport.
And especially when it comes to Presidents, voters want leaders who give them a sense that they understand the forces of history and change that will shape the future they are leading us into – the same way they want pilots who know what kind of weather lies ahead.
ohn F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign centered around his vision for the future. Kennedy’s campaign themes: “A Time for Greatness” and “Leadership for the 60’s,” and “Getting America Moving Again” gave voters a sense that he had a clear vision for America’s future.
In 1996, Clinton’s attacks on Bob Dole for his lack of vision were devastating. In one commercial the Clinton campaign ran clips of Dole recounting how he had opposed Medicare, how he opposed the Department of Education and uttering his famous quote: “I’m not sure what everyone is looking for in a candidate for President. Maybe we shouldn’t have one at all, leave it vacant. But there’s going to be one, every country ought to have one, so we’re out here campaigning.”
The spot concluded: “No Vision: Wrong in the Past, Wrong in the Future.”
Whether it involves the future of the middle class, or the earth’s environment, or national security, Mitt Romney is visionless.
Then again, what would you expect from a guy who spent his career focused only on the next quarter’s bottom line?
Romney seems clueless when it comes to the major forces that have affected the economic prospects of everyday Americans. He apparently never noticed that while per capita economic output (GDP) – and per capita productivity – have both steadily risen for the last twenty years, the incomes of everyday Americans have remained stagnant.
There is only one way to account for this phenomena: a tiny sliver of the population has siphoned off the fruits of that increased productivity for themselves. This is exactly what the economic data tells us is true. And that is what has left the middle class, and those who aspire to it, without the money in their pockets to buy the increasing volume of goods and services that have been generated by that increased productivity. The resulting stagnation, coupled with an orgy of reckless speculation on Wall Street, sent us tumbling off the worst economic cliff in 60 years.
But Romney’s prescription to improve the economy is to go back to exactly the same failed Bush era policies that lead to this disaster. Romney’s prescription: shower the top 2% with more tax breaks and they will allow some of that shower to trickle down to everyday people. And, of course, Romney wants to allow Wall Street to run wild. We tried that, just four short years ago. It didn’t work then, it won’t work now.
That is precisely why the Obama campaign has labeled the Romney-Ryan ticket the “Go Back Team.”
But Romney and his new running mate Paul Ryan have no intention of stopping with the Bush era: they want to return America to the Gilded Age. They would eliminate Medicare and replace it with a “voucher” program, privatize Social Security (how would that have worked during the stock market collapse that cost pensioners 40% of their savings?), eliminate unions, repeal labor protections, and weaken safety protections for workers.
Romney and Ryan opposed laws to assure that women receive equal pay. They would strip women of their right to choose and eliminate government support for contraceptives.
Things are just as bad when it comes to America’s relations with other countries. Bad enough that Romney has appointed a foreign policy team that includes many of the Neo Cons who were architects of the disastrous Iraq War that cost thousands of American their lives, cost a trillion dollars of our treasure, probably caused the deaths of a million Iraqis, and besmirched America’s reputation worldwide.
But he doesn’t want to stop with the age of Neo Cons either. Romney wants to hop into a time machine and return to the Cold War. He has made clear that Russia is America’s “chief geo-political foe.” Maybe it’s time for someone to tell Mitt that the Soviet Union collapsed almost a quarter-century ago. Next, Mitt might propose America focus on the spread of Fascism in Europe.
But perhaps the most glaring thing about Mitt’s lack of vision, is the lack of evidence that he has any sense whatsoever about the forces that will shape the world we will leave to our children.
He bull-headedly ignores the now incontrovertible scientific evidence that human behavior is causing global climate change that will completely reshape our lives. He attacks initiatives aimed at rebuilding America’s infrastructure to 21st century standards, and supports proposals like the Ryan budget that would cut funding for education – the single most important factor that can give our kids a better life.
When it comes to real threats to our national security, Romney and Ryan seem positively lost. It isn’t just that the Romney-Ryan team has less combined foreign policy experience than any other major party ticket since World War II.
The security threats of the next century will emerge from the same underlying factors that has fueled human conflict for millennia: conflict over scarce resources. But those conflicts will take place on an unprecedented global scale, in a world where we have developed nuclear weapons that could destroy all life on the planet. And those conflicts will be fueled by major forces that visionary action could move to contain.
In the next fifty years, climate change and population growth could combine to cause massive food shortages.
The same is true of fresh water.
Without renewable replacements, the depletion of fossil fuels would certainly lead to massive conflicts over shrinking energy supplies.
The development of cyber weapons could paralyze our network-dependent modern economy and nuclear proliferation could put these terrible weapons into the hands of terrorists.
Romney flat-out opposes -- makes fun of -- investments in renewable energy sources that would begin the process of freeing us from the tyranny of Big Oil – and oil dictators – and address the problem of climate change.
Rather than support movements to limit the exploding growth in the world’s population, Romney actually opposes support for birth control.
Have you ever heard word one from Romney about protecting our natural resources, or investment in de-salinization, or strengthening the international co-operation needed to deal with cyber-security or frankly any of these critical issues?
The historian Barbara Tuchman wrote the classic account of the how the world stumbled into World War I called The Guns of August. The book concluded that the avalanche of weapons that flooded Europe in 1917 created an unstoppable logic that overcame rationality and “required” their use. Today Russia and the United States each still aim 1,550 nuclear warheads at the other – 25 years after the end of the Cold War.
And other countries continue an inexorable demand to develop their own weapons so long as the major powers maintain their stockpiles.
All told, the world has 25,000 nuclear weapons of all types. Of these, 90% are in the hands of the United States and Russia, including the strategic weapons each has targeted at the other – and many tactical weapons intended for use on the battlefield or kept in storage. The additional 2,500 are in the hands of China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. If proliferation continues, one day nuclear weapons will almost certainly once again be used to kill – potentially millions.
President Obama spent a great deal of political capital to pass the START II Treaty with Russia that reduced nuclear weapons to their current levels. Obama is committed to a goal of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely and ending the madness of arming ourselves with these weapons that could never be rationally used. Mitt Romney actually opposes the steps that are obviously necessary to reduce the odds of a nuclear Armageddon.
Maybe someone should tell Mitt that the two percent can’t escape these problems by sequestering themselves in gated communities, or country clubs or boarding schools.
But one thing is certain. Whether or not he would be capable of the kind of vision necessary to comprehend the challenges of the 21st century, Mitt Romney has demonstrated that – in exactly the same way he did with Bain Capital – he believes he owes unquestioned loyalty to the bottom line of his investors. And in the case of his run for the Presidency, those investors are the oil companies, the Wall Street banks, and the wealthy ultra-right wing donors and defense contractors whose interests are embedded in the status quo and have no interest whatsoever in having a visionary President.
The choice is clear. It is no accident that the slogan of the Obama re-election campaign is “Forward.”