Our Elections and Presidential Selection

I remember sitting in my presidential theory class during my junior year of college… the discussions were lively, the materials stimulating, and the jokes acerbic (is there any other way?). Aside from analyzing Machiavelli and paying homage to Lincoln, I started thinking hard about our current presidential system, and years later, I still haven’t been able to stop. One part of our political structure that has always fascinated me is our system of elections. I’d like to pose a question that I’ve thought about a lot, and then offer some thoughts. (Admittedly, this post will not come close to answering this query—that would take volumes. See James Ceaser’s Presidential Selection if you’d like a taste…)

Does our current electoral process and the manner in which our presidential candidates campaign accurately represent their abilities to make a good Commander in Chief?

In one sense, I believe that the way our modern elections are run may be an accurate indication of a particular candidate’s abilities. Presidential campaigns tax the candidate’s mental, emotional, and physical abilities like few other occupations can. The candidate is always in the public eye, always has to have an answer, and always has to look the part. Presidential candidates are subjected to the minutest examination and criticism from all segments of society.

What is more, the campaign itself plays a big role in training the candidate for an executive role. Constantly being forced to think about and formulate policy positions on current events requires the development of an executive mindset. A huge reason Obama has much more experience than Palin (a comparison that was made from day one), is because he’s been campaigning for the past year and a half. His two years in the U.S. Senate are not drastically more qualitative than Palin’s years as the governor of a small state—both offices offer unique challenges and responsibilities. Yet, the fact that Obama has campaigned for so long has given him an air of authority and a confidence not offered by his qualifications alone.

On the other hand, however, the modern campaigning process is so different from actually being President that it’s almost hard to make a comparison between the two. Presidential candidates have no real policy authority. The wellbeing of the country does not rest on their shoulders. (I suppose you could make the same statement about the President, but no matter what your executive theory may be, there is no denying that the President plays a major—perhaps even, defining—role in shaping American policy.)

Furthermore, the end goal of a campaign is to convince as many voters as possible that their candidate is better than the other. There is a fundamental difference between vote-garnering and policy-making. Campaigns are weaponized on sound bytes and emotionalism. At the risk of sounding un-American (which I am not), “patriotism” can be just as effective a tool at seducing voters’ emotions as “hope and change.” As I alluded in my previous post [www.sundance.tv], a major frustration of mine this election season is the abject refusal of the candidates to actually answer questions and talk about real issues. Instead, Obama and McCain have spit campaign rhetoric and banalities like it’s going out of style.

To be fair, in Wednesday night’s debate, there were a few brief moments where I thought the candidates opened up and actually addressed the issues. Obama’s first response to Bob Schieffer’s education question was refreshingly genuine and up front. McCain had his moment of truth when discussing his criteria for SCOTUS nominees, where he eloquently and candidly explained his thought process and his record. Unfortunately, these instances are few and far between.

While we can discuss these pros and cons until the Bluths resolve their family issues, at the end of the day, the pragmatist in me has to point out that this system is what we’ve got, and the best way for us to appreciate its role is to try to understand it.