Are Primary Fights Becoming Dueling Cults of Personality?

I doubt it will do much good, but after sharing the (tentative) good news about Bella Santorum and the decision of Herman Cain to endorse in Florida in today’s Morning Jolt, I wonder if the process of preferring a candidate inherently blinds one to that candidate’s flaws . . .

As the Philosopher Ice Cube Said, ‘Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself’

It’s a Republican presidential primary. Of course it’s going to be hard-fought. But this cycle seems to be getting ever-more depressing, as I seem to keep encountering folks who respond to new bits of news unfavorable to their guy by reflexively adjusting all of their other views to preserve their pre-conceived notion that their guy is The Man.

I’m sure that you can think of some folks who you would put in this category. My readers who prefer Newt are probably tossing me in that category, too (read on, frustrated Newt fans, read on).

For example, if you read then-Rep., now-Sen. Tom Coburn’s account of Newt’s time as Speaker, painting him as an egomaniacal leader threatened by dissent and willing to quickly go back on the Contract pledges in pursuit of power, and you conclude this shows that Coburn has really been a northeastern elitist all along . . . well then, I can’t help you.

If you read the numbers in the NBC/WSJ poll, suggesting that Gingrich has big problems with women and independents, and you conclude that the survey must be a pack of lies and that Gingrich probably would do well among those demographics, well . . . you can find the same phenomenon in the Rasmussen numbers (“Among women, the president leads Romney by 11 and Gingrich by 22.”) or CNN (18 point spread between Obama and Gingrich). If you think all of the polls are fudged because somebody’s out to get your guy . . . well, you turn into Christine O’Donnell that way. (If you’ll recall, her campaign suggested that Scott Rasmussen was altering the results of his polls to make her appear to be a weaker candidate than she was, to avoid the “long tentacles” of the Republican National Committee.)

If you can’t read any anecdote or account of your preferred guy, and conclude, “Yeah, he was in the wrong there,” or “Yeah, that’s going to be a challenging weakness to overcome . . .” well then, when you read or listen to or watch the news, you’re not really trying to learn new information about what’s going on. You’re really just looking for more anecdotes and evidence to reconfirm what you already believe and know. (Confirmation bias, they call it.)

We all probably do this to some extent, but no matter how much you may believe that your guy rocks, the day will come when he doesn’t rock. I thought what separated us from the “O-BA-MA” chanting cult of personality on the other side was that we didn’t need to see our presidential candidates in messianic terms. For all the hoopla and the fancy plane and the band playing “Hail to the Chief,” presidents are guys (and someday, gals) we hire to do a job under a four-year contract with a possibility of a four-year extension. Hopefully they make enough of the big calls right.

Representative government — and life, in fact — require a certain ability to see hard truths, mistakes, things that don’t turn out the way you wanted. I’m starting to wonder if that quality is much rarer than I thought. I’d like to see all agricultural subsidies eliminated, but the votes aren’t there (at least for now) and proposing the policy would make any candidate toxic and unelectable in big chunks of the country. I’d like to see a grade-A candidate in the GOP field, but instead we’ve got a bunch of B minuses and C pluses and below. I’d like to see “Firefly” back on the air, but it’s not popular or cost-effective enough.

Of course, those like me who are concluding that Romney is the least bad, and most electable, of the remaining options ought to do some periodic rechecking ourselves. We have our own assumptions, and sometimes the data and events suggest otherwise. I shouldn’t accuse others of having blinders on and then do the same myself.

On the notion that Romney’s the most electable in the field . . . maybe he isn’t after all, or we ought to see his glaring flaws clearly. In Gallup’s mid-January poll, 12 percent of self-identified Republicans say they would vote for another candidate if Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are the major party nominees, and another 4 percent say they would not vote at all. Only 7 percent of self-described Democrats say they would vote for someone else if those are the options, and only 2 percent say they won’t vote if those are the options. If our guy is losing 16 percent of the Republican vote, and their guy is losing only 9 percent of the Democratic vote, we have got to clean up among independents, and no one should underestimate how difficult that will be.

I’ve figured that the prospect of a second term of Barack Obama would unify Tea Party conservatives, loyal Republicans, frustrated libertarians, and everyone else livid and exhausted from the status quo of perpetual disappointment, but maybe that conclusion is wrong. Karl Rove has spoken often about his calculation that four million evangelical Christians stayed home in the 2000 election, a result he attributed heavily to the revelation (no pun intended) of George W. Bush’s long-ago arrest for Driving Under the Influence. If that long-ago misdeed was enough to persuade likely Republican voters to stay home and permit Vice President Global Warming to take over, how much faith (again, no pun intended) can we put in Romney not botching that particular sales pitch?

Then there’s his inability to emotionally connect with people. Suppose he wins the nomination and the lousy economy renders Obama’s second term unacceptable to America. Will we be better off with a Republican President Romney who has a lot of irked conservatives not quite behind him, and little if any demonstrated ability to speak from his gut and move the hearts and minds of the people he seeks to lead? The agenda of cutting government, cutting the budget, reducing the debt, entitlement reform – all of these require persuading Americans to make hard choices, and overcome the default ‘gimme gimme gimme’ view of government that many voters have. Would a President Romney be capable of leading in that fashion?

On that cheery note . . . Happy Monday, everybody!

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