Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Romney Didn't Want: A View Into Presidential Character

I've wanted to write for a long time about the Presidential Character.  And the recent revelations about Mitt Romney's failed 2012 campaign is a good time to do it.

When I'm talking Presidential Character, I'm looking at the definitions created by political scientist James David Barber who developed the four types of Character based on Active/Passive and Positive/Negative traits: Active-Positive, Active-Negative, Passive-Positive, and Passive-Negative.

As a good example, look to the first four Presidents:
George Washington was, believe it or not, Passive-Negative.  P-Ns only become Presidents because of a sense of duty, not any desire for the office.  They're wary of executive power, and not thrilled with political negotiating.
John Adams was Active-Negative.  A-Ns are aggressive, uncompromising, unhappy both personally and professionally, but do relish a good amount of executive authority and do seek accomplishments to fulfill.
Thomas Jefferson was Active-Positive.  Optimistic, forward-thinking, capable of overreach, reveling in the ceremonial aspects of the Presidency, A-Ps are just as aggressive as A-Ns but more capable of compromise and reaching goals.
James Madison was Passive-Positive.  P-Ps are optimistic and friendly, but unfocused, more akin to being a caretaker letting the People's Business do its own thing.  Things can happen during their tenure but more often the Passive-Positive President is not leading the charge.

There is no bad precedent: Negative or Passive are not bad traits per se.  It all depends on the timing:  Washington was perfect as a Passive-Negative because as the first President under the Constitution it was up to him to define the limits and powers of the office.  By being that self-controlling, he stabilized government and gave it time to settle down.  An Active-Positive at that time could have led to chaos and constant in-fighting against the Congress: an Active-Negative could have made himself dictator out frustration.  On the other hand, Madison as Passive-Positive happened at a bad time: the War of 1812 happened under his watch, something an Active-Negative could have avoided, or an Active-Positive could have managed to greater success.  Passive-Positives could be successful during tenures of great upheaval: sometimes through luck, but most times because such passivity actually makes them flexible and capable of making sound deals with Congress or foreign nations. To that, look at Ronald Reagan: He campaigned as a radical anti-government conservative but in office his P-P nature made him amenable to government's effectiveness, which lead him to revoke his anti-tax stances and eventually pursue ground-breaking treaties with the Soviet Union.

That said, Active-Negatives tend to be very bad for the nation over the long haul: SEE Hoover, Herbert; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Nixon, Richard; Cheney, Dick (I would contend that Dubya himself was a Passive-Positive, allowing an Active-Negative like his Veep Cheney far too much power in his administration).

So what does this all have to do with Mitt Romney, the Man Who Will Never Be President?

Because his circle of insiders - his son Tagg, for example - are now claiming after his 2012 election debacle that Mitt Romney never wanted to be President anyway.

At first glance this looks, walks, and quacks like a case of Sour Grapes: he lost something of "value", so now they're claiming he never wanted it.  But the more you look at it, the more you see how this can fit into the Presidential Character grid that Barber devised.

I wanted to write about Romney's character - or lack of one - a few months back when I wanted to discuss this Presidential Character idea then.  I wanted to point out that Romney's constant flip-flopping on the issues made it impossible to determine just where on the charts he fit.  But then I realized he had a constant - his ever-fixed mark of the massive tax cut - and realized Mitt fit on the chart after all.

Mitt Romney, if he had won the Presidency, was going to be a Passive-Negative.

To refer back to Charles Pierce's Esquire article:

Willard Romney didn't want to be president. Willard Romney expected to be president, and that was his real undoing...
It has been years, probably, since Willard had to go to all the emotional fuss and bother of actually wanting something. If there was something that caught his eye -- a slow-moving company's fat pension fund, a nice house in La Jolla, the governor's office in Massachusetts -- there would be a deal to be struck and whatever it was that should be his would be his. This is not a man who tolerates disappointment well, not because he burns with ambition and avarice -- although he profited for years from very effective simulacrums of ambition and avarice --but, rather, because he rarely has experienced disappointment in his life. He does not want. He expects.

That fits the P-N psyche pretty well.  Passive-Negatives run out of a sense of duty or obligation.  For Romney, it has to do with the legacy of being George Romney's son: his father was an active political figure, running for all the right reasons (George Romney fit well to the Active-Positive if only he had bested Nixon in 1968).  It has to do with Romney being a major political figure within the Mormon church, an Americanized religious off-shoot of Christianity still looking for a President to validate the church's success.

The big difference keeping Mitt from qualifying for Active-Negative was all of Mitt's flip-flopping.  A-Ns, if anything, do have a core set of values outside of political ambitions: even Nixon for all his paranoia and loathing had his limits.  Romney's lack of core values - he honestly did not care one whit about abortion, or war, or poverty, or employment, or governance, or people in general - made him oh so very Passive in that regard.
(And at least Passive-Positives are well-liked.  Passive-Negatives?  Unless you're George Washington or Ike, who both earned respect enough to be liked, you're sh-t out of luck).

And what would that have meant?

Think George W. Bush's passive nature in office: he kow-towed to the "experts" in his administration, especially Cheney who quickly pushed his own secret agendas on the nation's energy policies, the nation's economic policies, and then the nation's war policies when 9/11 happened.  But at least against that, Dubya still had some semblance of leadership: he showed pragmatic concern for the GOP to pursue a moderate immigration policy (the Far Right refused), and he pushed for tolerance for Muslims and other faiths at a time the neocon's obsession with waging holy war in the Middle East led to a lot of bad feelings among the Far Right.  And at least during his first two years, before Cheney sunk his hooks further in, Dubya allowed more sensible figures in his Cabinet (Powell at State, O'Neill at Treasury) to craft policy.  Look to Powell's (and Condi Rice's) handling of the Spy Plane incident with China.

Mitt Romney would have filled his administration with the pushiest, meanest set of political hacks - hello, neocons - that dotted the edges of the Dubya administration.  He would have had to: the Far Right in the Republican Party would have insisted on their due, and Romney would accept it because Romney wouldn't have cared who was in charge at State or Defense or anywhere else in his Cabinet.

The Character of any President matters based on the times we as a nation are in.  We are still mired (2012) in a jobless recession requiring serious government intervention and jobs stimulus.  We are still mired in one ground war - Afghanistan - and still trying to clean up the messes of the other - Iraq - while at the same time juggling the political instability of the entire Middle East.  We're in the times where an Active-Positive President would be the most value.  Even an Active-Negative (as long as the Negativity was channeled elsewhere, say, resolving the professional hockey lockout) wouldn't be that damaging.  But a Passive-Negative?

Mitt Romney would have wrecked the United States.

In a way, it's a good thing Mitt really didn't want the Presidency.  He could have ended up being the first President to have been successfully impeached out of office (Nixon resigned, and both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton stayed in office).

P.S.  That said, how does Barack Obama rate on Presidential Character?

He fits the Active-Positive chart: the reason he lacks more success in an era that needs an A-P President is due to an obstructive Congress.

In the meantime, I seriously recommend James David Barber's text Presidental Character: Predicting Performance In the White House (4th Ed), 2008, ISBN 978-0205652594.

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