Political passions so easily intoxicate political enthusiasts during election seasons and make "believers" of us. Those of us who know we are susceptible should pay particular attention to the shortcomings of our favorites.
According to a Rasmussen poll, three front-runners have emerged after Saturday's Iowa straw poll: Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Michele Bachmann. (Ron Paul came in second in the poll, but given his isolationist foreign policy views and whiney manner, he has a low ceiling of national support that keeps him out of the top tier.)
Perry has charisma. He is a pleasure to hear and watch. On the substance side, he has demonstrated strong executive competence as governor of Texas, one of the largest states in the union and the national leader in job growth since the end of the recession. He has solid conservative bona fides. It doesn't hurt that Perry is comfortable with sidearms, but not in a kooky, Yasser Arafat kind of way. He shot a coyote in defense of his dog while jogging-with one bullet. Could he be any less Obama?
On the other hand, politicians are in the business of persuasion. And that often involves presenting themselves not as they are but as they think you would like them to be. In the Republican primaries, candidates who are to the left of the political base try to look more conservative than they actually are.
Reports of Gov. Perry's involvement in corporate cronyism are disturbing. In 2005 he created the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to distribute tax dollars as venture capital to Texas tech companies the state government viewed as promising. Is that the proper role of government? Is it a safe role? Did campaign contributions play a factor in the allocation of funds?
Earlier this month, he held a prayer rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston. It is biblically right for a governor to call his state to prayer and fasting in times of crisis. But was it overly self-serving? Why a stadium event? If we're in crisis, why issue the call in May for prayer in August? Perhaps it was to allow time to organize the event. Or that the crisis could wait. Or perhaps it was timed to support the announcement of his presidential bid just a week later.
Romney is someone we already know from the last presidential election cycle. His three greatest strengths are his national campaign experience, his outstanding business experience at time when we need a president who understands wealth creation, and his executive experience as governor of Massachusetts. He's fully vetted and would appeal to blue state voters.
On the downside, perhaps he has too much appeal in blue states. Is he fooling someone, either liberal-leaning moderates or the conservative GOP base? He has refused to admit that Romneycare was a mistake in judgment. That's the public health system he gave Massachusetts that parallels Obamacare, the newest federal entitlement that is helping to drag us toward national bankruptcy. In short, Romney has a trust hurdle.
Bachmann is a fiscal and moral conservative. Her commitment to spending cuts runs so deep that she voted against raising the debt limit. She is also a woman of outstanding Christian character. We can see from her family life-she has cared for 23 foster children-that Bachmann is not fundamentally caught up in herself. She has also shown a requisite toughness on the Tea Party circuit and the campaign trail. As with Sarah Palin, the media establishment has been fanatical in its scorn for her. This is in large part because Bachmann is a charming, effective, and staunch conservative who is a woman. She's battle-ready.
But it is no small problem she has been neither a senator nor a governor but only a congresswoman. The only person ever to have gone straight from the U.S. House of Representatives to the White House was James Garfield in 1881, and there's a reason for that. Because of the Senate's constitutional involvement in foreign affairs, senators have foreign policy experience. Governors have to balance budgets, deal with potentially hostile legislatures, and address a much broader constituency. Bachmann is also an unusually polarizing figure, and perhaps for all the best reasons. But the best candidate is one who can appeal to the broad middle of American voters and actually win the White House. Historically, the Iowa straw poll favorite has rarely gone the distance.
Like every human officeholder, none of the candidates is perfect. They are strong candidates, and it's their strengths that draw us to them in the first place. But we should chasten our political hearts with a sober awareness of their weaknesses. Human government is always a choice between imperfect alternatives. There will always be regrets. We can expect flaws. But tragic flaws and outright political swindles are things that sober voters can easily avoid.