The Day Has Come

You see, the problem is, January 3rd is here, and I’m still not ready.

Since the day, lo those many months ago, when Dana first brought up the idea of this blog, I have wanted to write a post in which I share with the fine people of Iowa my recommendation for which presidential candidate people should vote for in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. It’s not that I think that my voice is particularly noteworthy, or that the various Democratic caucus goers are somehow incapable of making up their minds themselves. I just think that if they should happen to want some advice, and should happen to stumble upon my incoherent ramblings, that it’s at least possible I could help them make up their mind one way, either for my preferred candidate or against him or her. I have a civic responsibility to help if I’m able, don’t I?

But here it is, 2008 (Happy New Year!), and I still have no idea who I think Iowa should vote for. I’m increasingly worried that when the primary in Missouri comes along on February 5th, I’ll still be unable to make up my own mind, let alone help anyone else. So what now?

First, a quick note on why I’m stuck. I tend to vote with the Democrats, so I’ve never seriously considered any of the Republican candidates for President. I have the utmost respect for each of the Republican candidates; they are all good men with sound records; I am, however, unable to select any of these men because I disagree (in some cases strongly) with the way they believe particular issues should be handled.

In the Democratic field for President, there are a variety of candidates, but I have long known my vote and recommendation would fall to one of three: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Barack Obama. There are a variety of reasons why the other candidates have not captured my imagination, which I will not go into in this post, but suffice it to say that I believe any of the three so-called front-runners would make a reasonably better president than any of the also-rans. They’re not bad people, I just don’t like them as much.

So I’m stuck trying to decide among Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. I’m not really sure which of those three I like the best. Each candidate has his or her own strengths. Each has a weakness or two that bothers me. But I think each has the potential to be a good president, at least as much as any person’s potential to be a good president can be judged.

But if we want to get a good president out of the November elections, how do we go about finding the one most likely to be a good president?

This part is where my advice for those making up their minds whether to caucus in Iowa today (or for which candidate they should vote in any of the upcoming primaries) comes in. Since you’re trying to decide who would make a good president, you should think about what qualities you think make a good president. If you want, make a list of presidents you think were particularly outstanding, and try to see what qualities each of those presidents share. It doesn’t have to be so systematic, though. Just do a quick word association, or complete the sentence, “I think a good president is.” Which candidate best fits your description of a good president?

As an example, here’s my calculus for choosing any candidate for elected office. It consists of three main parts. The first is what I call the issues criterion. Does the candidate answer questions on the issues the same way I do? What does the candidate believe to be the best route to take in Iraq? The best way to improve America’s education system? Do I agree? To what extent do I differ?

My second criterion is competence. Think about what it means to be President of the United States, so-called “leader of the free world.” A president deals with the daily administration of the laws and constitution of the United States, dealing with major and minor decisions in the various departments of the executive branch, involving a wide array of domestic policy, foreign policy, and everything in between. A president is the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, and makes critical orders for our soldiers in uniform. A president is the leader of his or her political party. Most importantly to many, a president has to actually implement the policies (see “issues” above) for which he or she was elected, whether a health care policy, a war policy, or a foreign policy; to do that, the president must not only navigate the massive American bureaucracy, but also the fickle and wide-ranging demands of Congress, who support or oppose him or her in almost equal measure. This is by far the tougher of the first two criteria, because while no candidate will identically match my own policy positions, at least it’s possible to come close. Judging competence for one of (if not the) most difficult jobs in the world is almost impossible.

But still, we can get some kind of idea of how well a candidate would do in the job from past experience. Maybe the candidate was a mayor of a major city, or ran a corporation, or a law firm. Maybe the candidate is a parent, or was a committed volunteer for a particular cause, or even served in the military. Even a hazy picture of a candidate’s competence is better than none.

Third, and less important for me, is character. This falls under competence to some extent, as a candidate of strong character will undoubtedly be more competent. I think, however, a president should be a person not only who we can respect, but also who will be a strong advocate for the policies he or she supports, who will faithfully try to do what he or she believes is best for the people of the United States, and who has the bearing to engage in the ceremonial functions of the office. Those are, of course, just a few examples of many things that a person might consider an integral component of character. We might find evidence of character in a variety of places, from a book the candidate has written to testimonials from the candidate’s spouse or family, or from their past, like their devotion to a charity or the manner in which they overcame the death of a loved one. In some way or another, a good presidential candidate will display something that we now know Richard Nixon did not have: good character.

Then, once you have found a candidate you think would make the best president, in a situation like a caucus or primary, you also get to ponder electability. You are, of course, welcome to vote for whomever you like, but if you want a candidate in the White House who approximates your own views and could competently enact them, you also need to think about the probability that your ideal candidate could actually win in a one-on-one contest with whatever candidate the other side (the Republicans, in my case) might come up with. Like the other criteria, electability is a extremely hypothetical: how can I know whether Senator Clinton will be eaten alive by the Republicans or will be strengthened by her experience of the previous attacks on her husband and her when he was president? At the very least, you should think about it, and there are even some polls that do hypothetical head-to-heads to see which candidates do best in certain situations. Think about it, look at the polls, and go from there. It might not change your voting preference, but remember that primaries and caucuses aren’t just about who would make the best president; they’re about who is most likely to be the best president, and “most likely” entails concerns about electability.

So now that the day’s here, Iowa, and since I can’t make up my mind on the subject, all the advice I have left for you is this: don’t blow it. Whether you’re caucusing Democrat or Republican, remember that despite the arcane nature of the caucus, the silly weight that the media puts on one small state of fifty, and the unlikelihood that whoever gets the nominations will care about your existence after tomorrow, that despite all that, today you get to fulfill your primary obligation to the United States of America. There is no honor higher than voting, and if you abdicate, or pick a loser douchebag who embarrasses the country, we all suffer because of you. So don’t blow it. Pretty please? Good luck!

Two disclaimers: first, don’t vote based entirely on what I, or any other individual has written. Think for yourself. I’m not trying to tell you who to vote for (even if I eventually do recommend a candidate); I’m trying to help you decide for yourself who to vote for. Second, my views are not the views of the other Geek Buffet writers, and should not be read as an endorsement by this blog or the other authors of a particular candidate, a particular party, or a particular issue. I speak only for myself. If my fellow authors agree or disagree with anything I say, they may do so in their own posts or in comments, but what I write is not to be interpreted as what they think unless they explicitly say so. I encourage them to pipe up, and even to disagree completely with everything I’ve written here.

–posted by Kevin, initially without hyperlinks, which will be included later

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3 Responses to The Day Has Come

  1. Bill says:

    Greetings from Grinnell, IA (aka. the Center of the Universe- for a day):

    Last night it was Edwerds packing ’em into a coffeeshop and Scarlett Johanssen for Obama at a pizza shop– today it was Huckabee squeezing everyone, including his prodigious media horde, into the old Veterans’ Memorial Building.

    There are canvassers, students holding placards at street corners, and lots of out-of-state license plates, even though classes don’t resume at Grinnell College for two weeks. There are innocent by-standers, taking pictures of our Louis Sullivan-designed bank, and there is an incredible buzz of excitement — among both Dems and Repubs.

    It will be Obama and Huckabee — with Edwards and Romney second. I think the Romney position, however, is tenuous. People here don’t like him.

    Clinton will wind up a distant 3rd. She never really got the nature of ‘retail politics’ in this state.

    And that’s why this makes sense. You can’t bombard the state with TV advertising and assume you’ll do well. A candidate has to meet people, explain his/her position and defend it, and… well… show up. The voters/caucus-goers take their roles seriously. I’ve met and talked to Obama, Edwards, Biden, Thompson and Huckabee. I’ve seen Bill Clinton, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. I’ve got a Tim Robbins autograph. Wish I’d been to the pizza place with Scarlett!!

    I’d trust the instincts of Iowans over voters elsewhere who don’t really care and are easily swayed by television ads.

    It’s all about the winnowing, after all… passing muster. Screw up here and you’re toast!

    I’m caucusing for Edwards. He can win in November. Obama is my #2.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the report from ground zero, Bill. Good luck with the caucus, and good luck to Senator Edwards.

    I have no idea, though, how you could possibly have missed out on Scarlett Johansson. I’d have shown up if she were supporting a Republican. What a woman. 🙂

  3. Mike says:

    This is characteristically thoughtful and lucidly written, Kevin. All I still want is … your soul! YOUR SOULLLL!!

    I like your test; I think a good president is a leader. I’ll have to refrain from saying more.

    I hope you’ll eventually share your internal battle, and victory, with us.

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