As Obama Falters and Romney Consults, 2012 Election Exposes an Office Looking for the Man

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As we plod into the final two months before the presidential election campaign officially begins (although they in fact begin about two years before the election that precedes the one for which the campaign is intended), there is still time to review what the purpose and principal issues are, before the fog of myth-making, sound-back-biting, wedge issues from imaginary wars on women to the ethics of private equity, and more traditional polemical and fabulist nostrums reduce the electorate to prostrations of boredom and insensibility. This is, in straight sociological terms, an interesting, and even perhaps unprecedented election, as it is not clear what either party or candidate is advocating, apart from the avoidance of the purgatorial misery his opponent would inflict on the nation.

President Obama cannot run on his record and makes no effort to do so. The economic recovery that was coming and coming and coming, is allegedly still coming, but isn’t here. That is the same recovery that he could not produce overnight, and now cannot produce because of the shambles in Europe, which falls on America because Europe is “our greatest trading partner.” This is more diaphanous rubbish than most such apologia: Foreign trade takes less than 15 percent of American production; Europe, even when taken as a whole, is only the fifth trading partner (after Canada, China, Mexico, and Japan); Europe generally is not in worse condition than the U.S. (Germany especially is functioning much better); and concerns about the 17-nation euro have largely driven the investment of $900 billion by Europeans in the United States since 2008, almost twice the previous traditional rate.

Unemployment and under-employment have effectively doubled from the average of the Clinton-George W. Bush years, while national debt has increased a stupefying 50% in this term, most of it bogus debt issued to the Federal Reserve and paid for in Monopoly Money notes. There is a broad national consensus for the repeal of Obamacare, whose constitutionality has been upheld, provided it is recognized as a tax. Not content with that, the administration’s media spear-carriers have denied that it is a tax, though it does appear to be an obligatory payment of about $525 billion, one of the largest fiscal impositions in history. Apart from the killing of bin Laden, it escapes my ability to find one success in any field that can be credited to this singularly self-satisfied administration.

But facing it is an opponent who seems incapable of credibly embracing anything more precise than the most soporific generalities. W. M. Romney is a consultant who assembles data and experts and who has no apparent notion of the nature, history, destiny, or national purpose of America. That charge cannot be leveled at the incumbent. Barack Obama does feel that the United States has missed the humanitarian bus and is overinvested in capitalism, meritocracy, and private enterprise, and as a result has been excessively plagued by racism, war, and economic inequalities. He has a completely unoriginal tax-and-spend notion of how to deal with that, though he has packaged it fairly innocuously as reform, fairness, ecological protection, and the spirit of charity; and has enacted it through regulation and executive order, having little ability to gain congressional adoption of any of his program.

This is America’s conundrum: a president who believes in rather silly things, even if his instincts are benign (and that is not what Julia Roberts called, in Pretty Woman, “a sure thing”), against a challenger whose beliefs are likely to be reasonably acceptable, although they emerge only after extensive consultation with pollsters and are, at the best of times, likely to change without notice on the basis of the ebb and flow of opinion.

Mr. Obama has the benefit of being a conviction politician, though most of the convictions are bad and the execution is sloppy — or malevolent and cynical, as in his inchoate war against the Roman Catholic leadership, assumedly based on the theory that the Catholic bishops were just a bunch of irrelevant ninnies. As William Daley and Joe Biden and other administration Catholics who know something about their faith warned him, Mr. Obama struck the shoals of Roman Catholic belief. Mr. Obama had no idea what he was getting into, and moved on to injudicious comments about the Trayvon Martin race-relations trial in Florida.

Mr. Romney is apparently a conviction-free zone, apart from marriage, faith (a version of Christianity that has gotten a pass on polygamy but hasn’t run yet the full media gauntlet on the discovery of sacred texts near Rochester, N.Y., any more than Romney has heard the last of taking his dog to Canada on the roof of his car), and a recognizable notion of the enterprise economy, which does distinguish him from his opponent. The positive side of his policy vacuity is that there is no more reason to believe that Mr. Romney is a fanatical homophobe, or a believer in balancing the budget by simply cutting expenses by blindfolded dart-throwing at a wall on which government programs are enumerated, or sending women who have abortions to prison, than there is to think that he really believes what he currently professes to regard as his bedrock of political convictions.

In his policy goals, he is a clock that not only faces in all four directions, but revolves as it does so. That is preferable to being fixed on bad policy options, and Mr. Romney’s record as an executive, contrary to the scandalous imputations of his long under-employed opponents, indicates a competence to find and execute a sensible course. Even if, which is not the case, he were, as has been alleged, just an asset-stripper who promoted unemployment, at least he demonstrated some considerable competence at running a company.

If Mr. Romney wins, the country will get better government than it has had for some years; if Mr. Obama wins, the condition of the country will become so dire that it will certainly do better next time. The burning questions are, Why has the United States had such poor government since its great victory in the Cold War, after 60 years of administration that has generally ranged from competent to inspired (Carter having been the only one of the ten presidents from FDR to Bush Senior who was probably not up to it); and, How confident can anyone be that the Constitution really is working?

Whatever the legalities in the Obamacare case, the speculation that the chief justice flipped to avoid a political crisis has helped reveal the under-worked, over-lionized Supreme Court for the opinionated, capricious gang of sinecure-holders that it is. Its popularity, while still far ahead of that of the other branches, has finally descended to about 40%, a trend that, barring the greatest resuscitation since Lazarus, will continue. It persisted in its levitation for so long only because the public doesn’t much focus on it, and the court doesn’t generally tax, spend, or go to war. But it has sat, as mute and inert as a suet pudding, while the prosecutocracy has gutted the Bill of Rights; turned the plea bargain into an infamy of inquisition, extortion, and perjury; made a mockery of due process and the rights of man; and upheld the absolute immunity even of prosecutors who willfully lie and suppress exculpatory evidence (in the unspeakable Supreme Court decision in Connick v. Thompson). Much of the American problem is in the trifecta of having 5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prisoners, and 50% of its lawyers.

The high court is a disenthralled Nero, the Congress is an anthill of lobbyists and special interests, and it is probably 20 years since the country has had a president with the character, intelligence, and judgment that great office requires. But in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve, and the fault is in ourselves. The judges haven’t judged; the legislators haven’t legislated, the presidents haven’t presided, but nor have the teachers taught, the information industry informed, or the beneficiaries and inheritors of responsible government acted responsibly. The United States still has an incomparably talented and motivated workforce and a patriotic population in a naturally rich and stable country. The Constitution is as magnificent as ever. But the electorate cleaned house in 1992, 1994, 2000, 2006, and 2008, and the condition of the country has gotten worse and not better.

The United States has been one of the most innovative political societies in history; if it can’t find a Lincoln or Roosevelt (of either party) to lead, perhaps it should govern itself by referendary, participatory democracy (which does not mean poll-taking). Put every important question to the voters, like the Swiss do. The political class has failed, at least for the time being. Mr. Romney is a consultant who loves to consult experts and examine data. The office may be seeking the man after all.

Conrad Black can be reached at This column originally appeared in the National Review.

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