Sunday, January 22, 2012

Privilege and the Race for the White House

Colbert King is upset that Steven Colbert is (sort of) making a satyrical run for the White House.
I fail to see the humor in Colbert urging South Carolinians to vote in Saturday’s primary for businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the presidential race but whose name remains on the ballot. Throwing away votes degrades a system already brought low by the unprecedented airing of negative ads so early in the nominating process.
That, I think, underestimates voters. The classic accusation made against anybody who votes for a third party candidate is "You're throwing your vote away," but that presupposes both that the person casting the vote believes that their candidate can win, and that the voter sees no value in casting a protest vote. On the whole, but specifically in relation to the suggestion that people vote for Cain in South Carolina, I don't think that's true. Realistically speaking, nobody who followed the suggestion would believe that Cain was going to reenter the race, and everybody doing so would recognize their vote for what it was - a protest against the rest of the field.

Colbert used wealth and position to elbow his way into the race? Sure, but what else is new.

Colbert's candidacy reminds me of the Rhinoceros Party in Canada, a satyrical party whose leading promise was the paradoxical, "Our first promise is to break all of our promises." As I recall, they stopped running when they came close to winning an election - they knew that they were a protest vote, as did everybody casting a vote in their favor, but winning would spoil everything. Colbert is going out of his way to ensure that he cannot win - his name was not on the ballot, the protest vote he urged was for a candidate who was no longer in the race, and nobody voting for Cain would have believed that vote would be counted. If Colbert wanted to be a disruptive influence, rather than illustrating some genuine problems with our political process, he could have used his wealth and position to get onto some ballots.

King should give other voters some credit. He recognizes the Colbert campaign as a joke, even if he doesn't see the humor - but the joke is "in your face". Everybody is already in on the joke.

After noting that the constitutional requirement for becoming President is pretty simple to meet, King states,
The road gets rockier from there, however.

There are the personal sacrifices of time, family and privacy, and the wear and tear on the body and psyche.

It’s a marathon that only a few are built to run.
I'm not sure that's true, as I recall any number of candidates with dubious physical and mental health nonetheless making a run for the presidency, sometimes on a perennial basis. It's not for everybody, but if King were to shift his perspective a bit he would see that what to him looks like an endless, wearying chore is, for others, a source of fulfillment, ego enlargement, and reputation-building. Does King believe that all of the candidates for the nomination, this time or in pretty much any other contested national primary, are in it to win? It's not that they wouldn't all take the victory if offered, but some are clearly in the race for other reasons. I suspect that, were he to think about it, King could probably even come up with the names of some historic presidential candidates whose motives were significantly less honorable than Colbert's.
And of course, once again, there’s the money.

Acquiring the millions needed to get a presidential campaign off the ground requires grueling hours of asking people and groups to part with their treasures on behalf of your cause.
Here's where I really have to part company with King. The money? King specifically identifies "Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Cain and now Perry". Let's see... Romney's "grueling hours" of asking himself for money and, as his campaign gained traction, asking his fellow multi-millionaire and billionaire financiers to inject money into his campaign and SuperPAC. Jon Huntsman's "grueling hours" of petitioning himself and his father for a few million to seed his campaign. Michelle Bachmann's "grueling hours" of having people blast emails to her supporters and contributors to "tea party" organizations asking them to give money to her campaign. Cain, once again, asking himself for money. Perry being drafted into the race by monied interests who, had he proved to be a viable candidate, would be continuing to shower money on his campaign.

Yes, presidential candidates often have to engage in fund raising, and to schmooze and promise favors to big donors in exchange for the money they need. King may see that process as unpleasant, unseemly, a lot of work. But having seen how professional politicians can work a room, I suspect that their perception is a bit different. They're the center of attention, people want to bring gifts, kneel before them, kiss their ring and beg favors. For some candidates I expect that process is more fun than actually serving in office.

King complains that Colbert fails to take "the political process seriously". If King means a sober process that's supposed to result in voters being able to select the best, most capable candidate with the best policy, that's a sin Colbert shares with most candidates for elected office. And if King means to bring policy into the discussion - the idea that having Colbert (sort of) in the race will somehow prevent the candidates from discussing the issues - when was it that the candidates were actually discussing the issues, let alone policy formation?

If King is complaining that it's not fair that rich people who are in the public eye have "the prominence and enough dough to form a super PAC", while other candidates have to struggle for years to get into that position, isn't that Colbert's point? He, like half of the Republican candidates, is able to enter the race and be backed by a SuperPAC by virtue of his public profile and personal wealth. Lo and behold, the result is that columnists like King are writing columns analyzing whether that's appropriate or fair. Granted, Colbert probably expected them to focus their attention on more than his own sort-of candidacy, but this is a start.

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