Emily and I had an interesting conversation with a class of Guinean students while we were in Bissau this last time. The subject was elections and we were commenting on how the candidates in Bissau tend to promise to fix 100 years worth of problems in their proposed term despite not having any money to do so. We asked the students why they thought the candidates did that, and their answer was interesting. They said that if most Guineans were given the choice between a candidate who promised to fix everything and would inevitably do nothing and another who said "Look, we have tons of problems but this one area is one I know I can fix and that's what I'm going to do" - that almost all voters would choose the guy who promised the moon. Interestingly, the rationale was that the guy who promised everything had vision, and they would rather have a leader who has vision, even knowing the odds are heavily against him actually accomplishing everything (or anything). We laughed to ourselves and I think secretly thought "that's a pretty silly electorate."
So, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I'm listening to a BBC interview with a U.S. Congressman talking about Obama's campaign. I really wish I could find a link to the interview to listen to it, but since I can't find it and don't remember the name of the Congressman being interviewed, I'll have to paraphrase. The interviewer asked the Congressman about Sen. Obama's agenda and whether the Congressman thought that, in light of the current economic situation, Obama would be able to implement all of the new programs he's promising. The Congressman (who supports Obama) said that it was pretty unlikely because of the slowdown in the economy. The interviewer then asked him if he thought that it would be a good idea for Obama to revise his platform so he wasn't promising things he couldn't deliver. The Congressman paused for a few moments and then said (again, paraphrased), "No, I don't think that people would vote for him." The interviewer replied something to the effect of "doesn't that seem like a lie? Couldn't he just explain that the money isn't there and a few things will have to be taken off the table?" The Congressman said "No, I don't think he could get elected that way. We know our way is better than the other guys, so Obama should say whatever he needs to in order to get elected and then once he's in office he will just have to do the best he can and implement as many of his ideas as money allows. But of course he won't be able to do everything he's saying." The interveiwer didn't really know where to go with that so the interview ended shortly after. And I thought to myself, "Did I just hear someone advocating the 'promise even if you know you can't deliver to sound more visionary-ish' strategy in American politics??"
I don't want this to sound like I'm Obama bashing, because I'm sure both campaigns are thinking the same way and overpromising. For the purpose of the blog, it doesn't even really matter which candidate the Congressman was talking about. The alarming thing here isn't that one candidate is thinking this way, but that our political system as a whole is composed of either a) politicians who view the electorate as being so dumb they "won't remember or care what we said we were going to do once we get elected" or b) an electorate that really is that dumb. I can't get on board with the idea that the people around me really are so shallow they don't have the mental capacity to analyze an election based on sound bites longer than 20 seconds. Our political process needs to be a little more intelligent than that. So to both campaigns I say "give us the truth, we can handle it, we have brains!"
I want a candidate who understands his strengths as well as his weaknesses and isn't afraid to admit that he (or she) isn't perfect. Weaknesses can be compensated for by cabinet appointments and the like if a president knows he has weaknesses - but the candidate who says they're the best on every issue might really believe that, and an unseen weakness is a dangerous one. The next candidate to give an honest answer to an interviewer asking "What is your biggest weakness as a potential president?" is going to earn my respect. And, "I work too hard and care too much" isn't going to cut it. I want to hear "I realize that I'm not an expert in the area of ____, but Mr. _____ who has been working at ______ for 20 years has agreed to be in my cabinet to help inform my decisions in that area."
Are we really so dumb that each candidate has to paint themselves as perfect and the other guy as the devil in a suit? I think we're smart enough to see through that. I say, be upfront about strengths, plans, weaknesses, etc. and let us weigh the choices. If there were some real information to analyze and think about, maybe the electorate would take the time to think about it!
That's enough of politics for now, but whichever way you're voting I hope we can all agree on the fact that America would be better off if elections were about deep discussions of serious issues rather than trading 10 second sound bites and accusations back and forth for 16 months.