For all the pious talk about having honest discussions about the issues, we are not having them, and we are probably not going to have them. Jobs? Forget it. If I hear one more politician talk about the importance of jobs and talking about jobs without actually detailing specific provisions, or voting, for legislation to create them, I am going to join Rick Santorum at the wastebasket. And if I hear one more politician pronounce their support or rejection of some “culture war” position—abortion, contraception, gun control, same-sex marriage, voter fraud, welfare dependency—because of their belief under their god, I am going to give up pledging allegiance to what plainly does not exist and is no longer encouraged in America, namely, “one nation.”
For all the political talk about having discussions about the candidates’ records of performance, we are not having them. Instead, we are getting detached snippets alleging this candidate’s success or that candidate’s failure, with clichéd film clips and sound bites about one’s friend in slick color and one’s foe in grainy black and white. I may change channels to home renovation programs so that I can watch paint dry.
The result of such campaigning, probably most pronounced among those least interested, least informed, and least involved, most of whom declare themselves to be Independents, will be decisions in the 2012 presidential election based on feelings of hope or fear, liking or loathing, virtually no facts—and most of those half-truths—, and less sense.
The exploitation of emotions in this election is evident in the divergences and instability of the national polls. Both reflect rapid fluctuations in responses to the latest news bulletin or verbal gaffe. The traditional use of distorted or dishonest attack ads, now more distorted or dishonest than ever, augments these responses. Obviously, both campaigns believe that many voters, especially these “least” voters, are ill-equipped to detect distortions, indifferent to them, or inclined, in their casual cynicism, to blame everyone equally. It is to these “leasts,” the swing voters, that the candidates orient most of their campaign ads.
In this campaign, the Republicans, with its Tea Party caucus, may have the advantage because they trust us to have paid little attention to inside-Washington politics. Case in point: Republicans trust us to know, as they remind us, that Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress in Obama’s first two years; but not, as they refuse to admit, that Senate Republicans have filibustered an unprecedented number of times to obstruct Democratic legislation and Obama’s appointments. Thus, the Senate Republican strategy to defeat Obama’s efforts to improve the economy, though not in the nation’s interest, is their chosen way to get us, especially the “leasts,” to blame the president and return Republicans to power.
Otherwise, both sides seem to believe that we, especially the “leasts,” do not care about the candidates’ records. Obama and Romney play to this indifference by saying as little as possible, for various reasons, about their records. Unwilling to amplify their thousand points of silence, I say nothing about their records.
Except to talk about records. Obama’s records are in the public domain, despite die-hard deniers of documentary evidence. We have seen his birth announcement in local Hawaiian papers and state-attested copies of his birth certificate. We know about his Christian religion from his church attendance and his political associates and supporters. We know where he went to school and whence he graduated (we have not seen his school transcripts, or Romney’s either, for that matter, because student records are confidential under federal law). We know where he worked, what jobs he had, what taxes he paid. So those living in the real world know just about everything about Obama, his childhood, his education, or his career. All of it is old news.
The same cannot be said about Romney. We also know about his education and about where he worked, what jobs he had, but not what taxes he paid. We have almost nothing of his business or political records. When he left Bain Capital, he destroyed many of his personal business records, and the rest remain securely stored away as corporate proprietary information. When he left his job at the Olympics, he destroyed most of his records about his work. When he left the governorship of Massachusetts, he destroyed his executive papers and bought, in order to destroy, all of the computers in the executive offices.
Romney’s habitual obliteration of records of his past performance in his career, even if entirely innocent, displays a bizarre, even unbalanced, penchant for secrecy. Now running for president, he refuses to release more than his two most recent tax returns on the bogus grounds that he follows John McCain’s example. But this fact is misleading; McCain has 30 years of government financial disclosure statements in the public record. Considered as a running mate, Romney gave McCain twenty-three tax returns. So why does Romney not give the electorate as many returns (twelve) as his father gave it? Why not give it a baker’s dozen, to cover the transitional year of 1999, when he began to work in Utah? By the way, McCain’s claim to have found nothing untoward in Romney’s tax returns is hardly a ringing endorsement, not least because it is hard to imagine that he scrutinized them more carefully than he scrutinized Sarah Palin or others on his roster of potential vice-presidential running mates.
Romney’s excuse—Democrats will pick his returns apart for damaging information—implies that he is not entirely innocent and has damaging information to hide. For if they would try to make mountains out of a molehills, he should flatten them—both mountains and Democrats—with his rebuttals and embarrass the heck out of them to boot. As it is, some suspect something illegal or at least shady; others, only exploitation of tax loopholes on an enormous scale and investments hedging on America’s economic future. But his silence as another form of secrecy speaks volumes, and not to his credit.
Worse than such suspicions is that, because of Romney’s penchant for secrecy and his destruction of records, no one can know how Romney makes decisions. Since he refuses to explain his decisions or to allow his records to speak for them, we cannot have real confidence, only blind faith, in his decisions or his leadership. So what we can see makes his trustworthiness doubtful. His flip-flops on almost all important issues mean that he makes some decisions for political convenience. Since he refuses to explain them or their timing, we cannot know what positions he would take in his presidency when post-election politics change. So we cannot know whom or what we are voting for if we vote for Romney. We certainly cannot expect him to be more forthcoming in the presidency; we can expect unprecedented use of the claim of executive privilege.
Worse is the possibility that secrecy enables his success in accumulating wealth. We know that Romney wants to lower taxes on the rich—a self-serving policy position which would further enrich him and one for which he offers no apology (in any sense of the word). We may suspect that he destroyed business and government records to prevent investigation of his dealings with his “blind trust.” The combination of a penchant for secrecy and a practice of destroying documents makes it not unreasonable to consider that he might have used insider information to give strategic, even if not specific, advice to his trust officer, who could then make investments to Romney’s financial advantage. If we knew that he did so once, twice, or thrice, we might suspect that he might do so again, as president. It certainly would be to Romney’s advantage to set the record straight with the release of his tax records, which could enable the electorate to know whether the timing of business and government decisions tracked the timing of investment decisions and thus suggest the use of insider information.
But the electorate, especially the “leasts,” may not care much about the answers to questions about Romney’s records at Bain Capital, at the Olympics, and in Massachusetts; and what they might imply about his character and conduct in positions of trust. If so, they are letting detestation of Obama, discontents with the slow economic recovery, or cheap and easy cynicism cast their vote for Romney as if buying a lottery ticket. For myself, better the devil one knows—if you have to think of Obama as a devil—than the devil one does not.