Of the two major-party presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who is better at solving problems? And what sort of problems should the candidates be seeking to solve, anyway?
In the first part of this series, we noted the remarkably even-steven division of power between the two parties, a phenomenon commonly described as “gridlock,” or “polarization.” That is, each party is able to block the ambitions of the other, because neither can win a steady majority. And so, for example, while the Republicans won in 2004, they lost in 2006 and 2008, then won again in 2010. It’s no wonder that nothing gets done by the party in power at the moment--because the opposition party thinks, not without reason, that all it has to do is wait for another election.
In the second part of this series, we noted that as the Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly ideological--that is, Democrats more liberal, Republicans more conservative--it’s possible to identify three possible “third parties” in the US. These notional “parties” we dubbed “Establishment,” “Populist,” and “Problem-Solver”; they represent informal groupings, not to be confused with, say, the actual Libertarian Party or the Green Party.
Yet whereas the Libertarians and Greens are tiny in numbers--never having exceeded 2.6 percent of the presidential vote in either of their respective histories, and usual getting much less--these new imaginary parties are numerically important, because they sit in the middle of American politics, occupying roughly two-fifths of the electorate.
Still, for all their general centrism, they are each decidedly different: The Establishment Party, focused mostly on good-government reforms, is not itself numerous in terms of votes, but boasts affluence and influence; the Populist Party, focused on middle- and working-class economic and social issues, is numerous but not affluent; the Problem-Solver Party is technologically adept, but economically and culturally diverse.
Thus political attention must be paid to these three “parties,” because neither Democrats nor Republicans can win with just their own ideological base. According to Gallup, only 21 percent of Americans define themselves as “liberal,” while 41 percent define themselves as “conservative”; these ratios have held steady for decades. So as we can see, neither party can get to the magic number of 50 plus 1 merely on the strength of its own core group; they both need a slice of the nearly 40 percent of voters who label themselves as “moderate.”
The Republicans, to be sure, would seem to have an electoral edge, insofar as conservatives are at 41 percent, not so far from 50. And yet in the 2008 presidential election, that nine-point gap was a gap too far for the GOP; John McCain earned the votes of just a fraction of swing voters, totaling only 45.7 percent in the November election. By contrast, Obama won 52.9 percent of the vote; obviously, the vast bulk of moderates-in-the-middle joined with liberals in support of the Democrat.
Okay, so now let’s talk about the two presidential candidates in 2012, considering how they might fare this November in gaining the votes of the three middle “parties.” (As for Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and others who might end up on the presidential ballot, in Part Two we noted that their extremely ideological views have been effectively co-opted by the intensifying ideologies of Democrats, on one side, and Republicans, on the other.)
Obama, we can say, is a liberal, even a leftist, who nevertheless managed to win the support of most Establishmentarians in 2008. Obama emerged from the liberal academic enclaves of Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, where he embraced familiar left-wing positions on, for example, gun control.
In addition to his tenure in ivory towers, Obama put in time as a community organizer and as a plaintiff’s attorney; there’s no doubt as to his bona fides as a longtime left-liberal. And after 2004, he went on to compile the most liberal voting record of all senators during his brief stint in the upper legislative chamber. Most recently, his “evolution” on gay marriage guarantees him a permanent place in the pantheon of progressivism.
So yes, Obama has more than nailed down the liberal vote--all 21 percent of it. And yet how did he manage to get 53 percent of the national vote four years ago? And why is he running even or better with Romney in the current RealClearPolitics poll of polls?
The answer is that Obama has been skilled at seeming not only moderate, but positively Establishmentarian; everyone in politics remembers, for example, his July 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, in which he declared, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America...We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Establishmentarians, by their nature, pride themselves on taking the “30,000 foot” view of issues; that is, if agreement can be found on big things--the deficit, global warming, poverty--then the little things will take care of themselves.
For his part, Obama obviously enjoys being in the company of such Establishmentarians as Warren Buffett and George Clooney, who see America from the vantage point of their private jets. However, after a challenging three-and-a-half years in office, the president no longer has the full allegiance of the Establishment Party.
Moreover, Obama’s romance with the Establishmentarians has come at the expense of support from the two other two “parties”; Obama doesn’t spend much time around Populists, nor does he seem to share any of their views. In addition, he seems little interested in technology-minded Problem-Solvers; one of the few nuts-and-bolts business leaders whom he sought to cultivate, GE’s Jeff Immelt, is reportedly now supporting Romney.
Next we come to Obama’s challenger, who is an Establishmentarian, to be sure, but also a Problem-Solver.
What Romney does not seem to be is any kind ideological conservative.
Nobody thinks he made his way through Harvard Business School, Bain Capital, the Salt Lake City Olympics, and the Boston statehouse on the strength of his readings of Edmund Burke, Ayn Rand, or Milton Friedman.
In terms of his history in private and public life--leaving out, for example, such not-insignificant personal matters as his marriage to the same woman for 43 years, and being the patriarch of a tight-knit and intensely loyal family--there’s little, if anything, that stamps him as a Goldwater-Reagan “movement conservative.” Indeed, as governor of Massachusetts, he signed a “Massachusetts Gay/Straight Youth Pride Day” declaration, took credit because “Massachusetts is tops in the nation for connecting needy families with food stamps,” and, of course, signed a personal health insurance mandate into law.
By virtue of wealth and power, Romney is an automatic member of the Establishment Party, and he has shown no interest in leaving its ranks. But Romney seems, even more, to be an instinctive Problem-Solver. Here’s how Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, once described his father:
In his spare time, he wants to solve problems. When he comes over to your house, he wants to figure out, “Well, your boiler’s not working. How are we going to fix the boiler?” and “Have you noticed that some of your trees are dying out there? Why are your trees dying? What’s causing that? Can we figure that out, and can we go down to the hardware store and see if they’ve got something to fix that?” And all of a sudden you see him driving a tractor in your backyard, and he’s pulling stuff up. He's like, “Oh, these rocks were doing that.” I mean, that’s just who he is.
Admittedly, the younger Romney is not an unbiased observer, but Tagg’s choice of words is still revealing. Of all the ways for the son to descriptively praise his father, the son chose to portray him as a doer and a tinkerer. And after four years of Obama, the country might well be ready for some business-like problem-solving.
Ah, but what about Bain Capital? What about the “King of Bain,” and all that? The Obama campaign is already hitting Romney on parts of his record, but the Romney campaign has the makings of an effective response: That is, let’s judge the sum total of Romney’s investments with Bain versus the sum total of Obama’s “investments” using federal money. In other words, Romney is saying, if Democrats choose to re-categorize most, if not all, government spending as an “investment,” let’s see how those investments have actually netted out. So yes, let’s compare Obama the problem-solver to Romney the problem-solver--and then let our notional Problem-Solving party judge the results.
Let’s consider just one issue: the scandal at the General Services Administration (GSA). We all remember the uproar when bureaucrats were found to have spent nearly a million dollars on a Las Vegas party for 300 people, complete with a clown and a mind-reader.
The Obama administration knew about these shenanigans for at least a year before they become public, and yet, since the revelations, the Obamans have fired only a few top dogs and left it at that; plenty of federal employees in the video are not still on the job, if not necessarily working.
The GSA scandal has caused no larger executive-branch consideration of how Uncle Sam spends money. Moreover, few, if any, believe that Obama is so skilled an executive that he is, even now, devising a reform plan for preventing such scandals from happening in the future. That is, Obama has shown himself to be an ineffectual problem-solver.
For their part, Congressional Republicans have been attacking GSA, and with good reason. Yet thoughtful observers, such as Paul Light of New York University, have said that the GSA’s problems won’t get fixed with showy hearings:
We never fixed the core problems before because they’re boring. It’s much more fun to haul in the clown in front of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and ask, “So, what did you do for your $8,000?”
In other words, it is all too easy for Members of Congress to criticize the problem, without seeking to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Democrats and their allies in the media are not without their own counter-attacking resources. “The Most Outrageous Clowns Are in Congress,” blared an April headline Bloomberg View, suggesting that critics of GSA on Capitol Hill are in no position to throw stones. If Democrats can turn up the volume on the “everybody does it” mantra, the GSA scandal will recede into just another chapter in the bulging bureaucratic book of ignominy.
So what could Romney do about GSA? How could he apply his own skill set to this matter?
He could start by reflecting on the original mission of the GSA, as opposed to what it does in its current bureaucratic incarnation. Created back in 1949, GSA, which counts more than 12,500 employees and a budget of almost $21 billion, theoretically oversees federal purchases across the whole of the government. So today, how does one update the mission of a 20th century agency into an appropriate mission for the 21st century?
Moreover, in light of Romney’s background, what would a Bain Capital approach to fixing the agency look like?
It would be more than just slashing the budget or its employees, because, as we know, a dysfunctional agency with a reduced budget is still a dysfunctional agency. What’s needed is a replacement model that fulfills necessary functions, even as it taps into the latest technological efficiencies. It’s impossible to believe that GSA really needs 12,500 employees, but what’s the right number--half that figure? a quarter? a tenth?
The only way to answer such questions is by surveying the way that leaner and smarter operations fulfill their supply needs. After all, Apple and Intel need pencils--how do they buy them? What does FedEx or UPS know about moving things around, making them intantly trackable at every step of the journey? What does Wal-Mart or Target know about keeping tabs on its worldwide inventory? And what does Google or Facebook know about the better management of information and data? It’s not always the case that we can run the federal government as we would a business--but sometimes we can.
That’s the case that Romney can make. He can say, “I know how to do this. I have done it before, and I can do it again. Something came before the GSA, and something will come after it. So I will figure out what should come next, so that the government will run as efficiently as the best private-sector company. I am more qualified than Barack Obama to find the better way forward.” If Romney can make that argument, Problem-Solvers will cheer, and the middle of the electorate will shift, abandoning the stale and ideological incumbent and moving toward the fresh and practical-minded challenger.
And so Romney can win the election and be our 45th president.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.