Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Most Dangerous Game: A Political Balancing Act

By: Lauren Skompinski

Game Change is about more than Sarah Palin. The HBO political drama centered around the McCain campaign’s pick of Palin for VP in 2008 is about the political candidate in general, and the aura we attribute to these fascinating people trying to balance an attractive appearance with intellect and political skill.
Game Change pushes the issue of the inexperienced candidate into the limelight, using the Palin pick to illustrate the more and more apparent failures of picking and choosing leaders.

The 2008 presidential election highlighted the rise of superstar Senator Obama, and we saw what a charismatic personality and perfect smile can do for someone’s political career. But on the other side in the McCain campaign, we saw what failure it can bring to politics as well. Even seasoned campaign operatives and chief strategists dropped the ball on this one, by rushing what should have been a thorough vetting procedure to secure Palin’s place in history.

This in fact is the most dangerous game in American politics, where the outcome of choosing our leaders can be uncertain. Do we vote for an Obama-like superstar with very little experience (and one of the many reasons for choosing Senator Joe Biden as his running mate) because of his popularity or do we vote for the experienced candidate without that special charisma we all look for in our leaders?

The movie opens with McCain’s senior campaign strategist Steve Schmidt during a one-on-one interview. He is asked the question of whether or not, given the chance for a re-do, he would make the same choice of Ms. Palin for the ticket. Schmidt does not answer the question outright, but the story unfolds the issue of rushing into decisions based primarily on looks and not substance – a campaign caveat. The team ends up with Palin as their final decision, after searching through some YouTube videos of Palin and a quick in-person interview. Schmidt admits that he rushed the vetting process and never got to the heart of any major policy questions.

The McCain campaign needed to do something “big” – as close advisors would say. Obama was climbing in the polls and rising to a level of celebrity that no past presidential election had ever seen. The McCain campaign even took advantage of this with one of their televised ads, attempting to remind the country that stardom does not equate to effective leadership.

The McCain campaign should have listened to their ad. Sarah Palin had to be “taught” basic foreign policy, even going so far as getting lessons on how World War II started – factually accurate according to Steve Schmidt.

The pressure to produce a viable and inspirational counter-candidate to the rise of the Obama ticket led to the outcome we have today. Sarah Palin simply was not ready to take on such a prominent role in national politics, and no history lessons or late-night prep work was going to change that in one election cycle.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why we vote for the leaders we do. If Steve Schmidt can make a mistake, we all can. A famous poll result released a while back asked respondents simply if they had voted in the last election. Of course, most people said yes, and that they knew beforehand whom they would vote for. They simply vote for the candidate they like, with very little substaintive information on the actual candidate (See "Voting Correctly" by Richard R. Lau and David P. Redlawsk in The American Political Science Review, September 1997).

Political scientists have tried to explain presidential personalities for decades, and why we vote for certain personalities. Probably the most famous metric used is James David Barber’s “Presidential Matrix”- used in many standard American history textbooks around the country.
James Barber categorizes four types of presidential characters: active-positive; active-negative; passive-positive; and passive-negative. Barber explains that before voters cast their ballots for president, they should know how “active” the candidate is and whether or not he or she “truly enjoys political life.” Using the matrix, according to Barber, will help determine which candidate is more suitable for the presidency.

For example, Barber typifies both Bill Clinton and Ronald Regan as “passive-positive” – meaning that both presidents needed to be loved by their constituents, and were overly optimistic at times. But typifying leaders this way can be dangerous, since no matter which side of the political divide you are on, most people would say both Bill Clinton and Ronald Regan were effective leaders and popular presidents. The matrix also does not take into account the intellect or policy preferences of the leader.

Many political scientists point out that the current environment also plays a crucial role in how Americans vote. A field experiment done on “rational” versus “emotional” campaign literature proved that advertising that appealed to the emotional side of people were much more effective than rational policy arguments (See an early study "A Field Experiment on the Comparative Effecitveness of Emotional and Rational Leaflets in Detrmining Election Results" authored by GW Hartmann). Campaigns can shape the debate about what is important to discuss and what is not, defining the scope of the election. The Obama campaign set the agenda with his messages of hope and change – showing that is was a critical point in history for the country. The McCain campaign’s response to that was to bring “hockey mom” Palin on board to appeal to the emotional side of the country, not the rational.

So, is there a way to predict effective leadership by looking at both personality and intellect concerning policy? Would the country rather have an attractive leader such as Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio – but lack in the specific policy arenas that are needed in today’s environment? Do we really need a Woodrow Wilson with a Ph.D in political science to run the United States? History will tell us that there is no supreme way to choose who leads best. But with the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond both at home and abroad, we might need to define a better way to vet our potential presidents. Because if Steve Schmidt can rush into decisions, so can the country.

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