October 9, 2008
The presidential campaigns have been going on for so long that not only do many of us not remember when they started, we can’t imagine that they’ll ever end.
But end they will. In less than a month, the airwaves and cablewaves will take on the eerie stillness of an armistice, when the boom of cannon cease and the song of birds is heard again, when the relentless roar of the candidates’ commercials abruptly stops and the soothing tones of ads for curing erectile dysfunction and osteoporosis take their place.
Historians of polling say that most undecided voters solidify their choices about a month before an election. The candidates have been in our homes, endlessly jabbering to us through our TV sets, for so many years that they are like neighbors, and like neighbors, we size them up by gut: Can we trust them? Can we rely on them? Are we comfortable with them? Will we invite them over for dinner or keep them at arm’s length?
In the closing days of a campaign, it’s as much about personalities as about policies. In Latin, a persona was the mask that actors wore in Greek and Roman plays to represent their characters. Per-sona literally means "sound-through." What we see on our TV screens are the candidates’ masks, their personae; somehow we have to judge what’s behind them.
We’ve been seeing some interesting examples of personae of late. Barack Obama, who at an earlier stage of the campaign was giving many Democrats "buyer’s remorse" by appearing distant and hesitant when off of his fiery stump, has turned decisive and forceful — "presidential" — in recent weeks. John McCain, by contrast, has betrayed a disconcerting dithering behind his hero’s mask. Most astonishingly, Sarah Palin’s persona retrieved its scrappy, homey form at the debate with Joe Biden, not only redeeming her candidacy but making some people think it’s now a Palin/McCain ticket instead of the other way around.
What’s driven people to scrutinize personae over policies at this time more than ever is the global financial meltdown. The situation of the economy is so contorted and confusing that in the short run the voter has to choose a president based on perceived "leadership qualities" rather than solid proposals, of which there are few. It was much the same in the 1932 contest between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, in times of similar economic peril and uncertainty: Nobody was quite sure what they were voting for, but everybody was sure whom they were voting for. Roosevelt powerfully supplied the what just days after his inauguration; we can only hope against hope for something of the same.
No matter how they feel about the candidates’ personae, voters had better use that now-legendary kitchen table of theirs to lay out the range of issues and think them through on their own — call it the "Straight-Thought Express." Neither candidate nor their parties have presented the bold plans of action that are desperately needed — the Democrats are typically timid and the Republicans are simply confused — but we can develop our own wish-lists and vote for the candidate and the party that seem to offer the best chance of realizing them, however haltingly.
On the economy: What do you now believe about regulation and deregulation? How free should a free market be? How much social security (in lower case) should every person be guaranteed? Should basic saving and first-home borrowing be simple, secure, and available to all, or should people be forced to make market decisions they can’t possibly understand?
On health care: Ditto. Should everyone have equal access to a simple, universal system, or should they have to wade through endless and often deceptive "options" fabricated by insurance middlemen?
On energy and transportation: Should the government enact a comprehensive policy that favors renewable energy sources over fossil fuels, and rail transportation over highways and air?
On taxes: Should taxes be directly linked to expenditures, instead of cutting the first while increasing the second? Would you be willing to bear higher taxes for health care and transportation, for example, rather than being "taxed" by the insurance companies and oil conglomerates?
On the Supreme Court: Given that the future president will appoint several new justices, do you want a court that is ideologically lopsided, or one that has to deliberate to strike a balance in its decisions?
On foreign policy: Is Iraq a sovereign country or a vassal state? Is Afghanistan a quicksand for the U.S. as it was for the U.S.S.R.? Can Cuba best be liberated by free trade? Can the U.S. broker a just and even-handed resolution to the Israel/Palestine stalemate? Are establishing diplomatic relations, opening trade, and presenting a non-belligerent stance actually the best ways to destabilize the dictators in Iran and North Korea?
That’s hardly the end to the questions, either. You may have to add another leaf to your table.
No candidate, no party will fulfill all your wishes; they either are too paralyzed by the polls or don’t know what to think themselves.
But develop your wish-list anyway, and go with your gut about those personae. Then hold your nose and vote.