Certain that I owe penance for something, somewhere, I recently watched an entire Republican Presidential debate. This one was the Newt and Mitt show. It was certainly less entertaining for the absence of Herman Cain, although you’ll never catch me saying that I privately relished the thought of watching today’s Republican Party have to choose between a Mormon and a black man.
I can’t help but like Newt. He’s your rumpled uncle with an elfish grin (unlike Ron Paul, the dyspeptic uncle who shows up and ruins your Thanksgiving). I like the way he pontificates on a wide range of subjects, regardless of how much he does or doesn’t know about them. More important, he’s a genuine visionary, and I love his insistence on looking at old, serious problems in new, unconventional ways. We need that, desperately.
This is not to say I think Newt should be President. Like most visionaries, he has no filter to help him know which of the ideas he constantly generates is fantastic and which is foolish. And visionaries tend to make lousy leaders. Remember, the one time he was actually in a leadership role, he got a lot done and got fired for it. He’s also a trifle self-absorbed, and he has a certain talent for self-destruction. With Newt in the lead, the questions are (were?) whether he will spontaneously combust before or after the nomination (or election), and which would be worse.
Mitt has more of a problem. If he were a rapper, we’d call him “25 Percent” because that’s as high as he’s gone and may be as high as he’s going. Mitt has a trust problem. He can’t engender it. It doesn’t help that he’s a Mormon in a party with a big Evangelical base (see previous post). But he has two bigger problems. One is that he’s changed positions enough times to make a porn star blush. This calls for sincere, compelling, understandable and believable explanations, which he has not been able to deliver. A 59-point economic plan makes this worse, not better.
His other problem is The Smile. Mitt’s default expression is the kind of smile people wear at cocktail parties that they wish they weren’t attending. People who know him consistently describe him as sincere, engaging, funny and inspiring, but you wouldn’t know it to watch him in public. This makes him 2012’s Al Gore. The Smile is a learned behavior that is undoubtedly subconscious at this point in his life. It likely makes him feel like he’s being friendly and approachable. Unfortunately, the message it sends to everyone else is that he can’t be trusted. Humans can smell insincerity from a mile away, the same way dogs smell fear. The brain’s subconscious reaction to facial expressions and body language that don’t fit the circumstances is, more or less, “You’re lying.” In this situation, perhaps it’s a slightly gentler “You have no core.” This is probably not true of Mitt, but he sure comes across that way. For a guy who already has a lot to explain, that’s a big handicap, one that may well turn out to be fatal.
Around the time of this debate, I bet a friend of mine a steak dinner that Barack Obama will be reelected. This is a matter of prediction, not preference. As I watch the Republican nomination process unfold, I’m not becoming more optimistic about my children’s future. I am, however, licking my chops.