Column: Election 2012, it comes down to this

In the race for the White House, look past the rhetoric and dig deeper

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
You’ve probably heard so much about Tuesday’s presidential election that you must feel a little bit like that four-year-old girl in Colorado who became a media sensation for crying and saying she was tired of hearing about “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney.

I join you in that — and wish Facebook, the Web and broadcast media weren’t loaded with all sorts of distortions, out right lies and nasty attacks on both candidates. And it’s sad that we can’t just have a sober, calm discussion of the issues and who is best suited to lead the American people.

Of course, that is the American way: virtually every presidential election since 1796 has featured vitriol, fiction and no small amount of angst — keep in mind the attacks on Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel have long been thought to have led to her dying of a heart attack a month after the 1832 election.

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We are a passionate people when it comes to elections, without doubt.

So, it might be a bit much to expect to change minds with anything like a sober-minded look at the race. I recognize that the issues that I find important might not be the same as yours.

First off, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney are both smart, skilled men, who I think both have the best interests of the United States first and foremost in their minds. Despite the hyperbole, the election of either man would not be ruinous for the country.

Interestingly, I think both men are more alike than most folks would suspect. While both have a certain charm and clear intellect, they both lack the “man of the people” skills as exhibited by the last two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They can both come off as a little detached and both have shown problems in communicating their point of view effectively. I would say as a counter, both are more disciplined and focused as managers than either Clinton or Bush.

Keep in mind, by the way, this is all relative — both men are obviously highly skilled and among the best and brightest ever produced by our country, much like suggesting a Major League Baseball player who hits .220 is “lousy” — just being good enough to play in professional ball makes you among the rare elite in the sport. Winning a major party nomination for president is the same: you have to be incredibly skilled just to get to this level.

So who are these men? Obama we know pretty well after four years in the White House. He’s smart, can, at times, be inspirational, but struggles to play the inside game of politics. He doesn’t backslap much — sort of the polar opposite of Lyndon Baines Johnson. He’s been pretty steady in difficult times, governed as a moderate (again, despite the hysteria, Obama is rated by historians as the most moderate Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson).

So, too, is Romney likely more moderate than he’s been forced to run as. If at the end of the day, Romney loses, it will be because he was forced to move to extreme right positions to pander to the Tea Party during the primary elections. I have to think a socially moderate, thoughtful fiscal conservative might well have been a solid favorite over Obama — and when Romney appeared to moderate his views a month ago, enthusiasm and support seemed to build rapidly for his candidacy.

But therein lies most of concern with this race.

Like him or not, Obama has been pretty consistent, for all his faults and failures. We know what we’re getting, although one would hope in a second term, he would learn from his mistakes and use the many tools at his disposal to find a way to work with Republicans in Congress. And yes, in fairness, those Republicans often seemed more interested in sinking Obama than doing what was best for the nation and the economy — but the burden still falls to the president in such situations.

But who is Mitt Romney? After all this time, I’m still not sure. Is he a moderate, or is he “fiercely conservative?” What is at the man’s core? What will he do in a time of crisis? Even after all this time, I don’t know that I, or many Americans, can answer that question authoritatively.

Obviously, the first Obama term has not been a raging success, although it does appear the economy is slowly healing from the economic free-fall of 2008. And while there have been some clear successes, there have been failures and other matters — the Affordable Care Act to name one — that only time will tell about, as much of that legislation doesn’t fully take effect until 2014. To be completely fair, I’d rate the first term of the Obama Administration a C-plus, certainly not the failing grade that one would have to give the Bush Administration’s second term, but still not meeting the stellar expectations his election engendered.

And while the spiraling deficit is a legitimate concern, both parties have such a lousy record over the last decade, neither party can remotely claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility with a straight face. And much of the “$6 trillion in new debt” some decry was run up because of the Bush Tax Cuts — a fiscally irresponsible move when enacted and a clear failure in terms of sparking the economy and creating jobs — yet still championed by members of both parties.

Can Romney do better? I’m skeptical because his math doesn’t add up. Adding tax cuts while increasing defense spending are assured to explode the deficit, no matter how many other cuts you make in the roughly $660 billion in discretionary spending (defense by itself is $689 billion). On a rate basis, Romney’s tax cuts would be about $500 billion a year, although he claims unspecified changes to deductions could be eliminated to reduce the number. By how much is unclear and unspecified.

There are economic growth assumptions being made that, at this juncture, seem wildly optimistic and if wrong could further explode the deficit, rather than cut it.

Worse, too many of his key advisers are warmed over from the Bush debacle and again, I’m still not sure what is at the man’s core. I think he’s probably a better manager than Bush and would likely far better equipped for the job than the 43rd President. But would he be an upgrade over Barrack Obama?

To be sure, I’d like to see a combination of spending cuts and the end of the Bush Tax Cuts across the board — politically unlikely, but fiscally sound, I grant — and may be one of the few folks in the country that see the so-called “fiscal cliff” as not such as bad thing, as it would slash spending across the board and increase taxes — putting the government on a firmer financial footing.

While I think at times Obama has lacked political courage, I’m not convinced Romney’s proposals are based on anything like reality. At the end of the day, the numbers don’t add up — or match the rhetoric.

Mitt Romney has failed, in my opinion, to make the case he can be a better leader than Obama — I’m not sure he’d be as good, thanks to the murkiness about his core values and failure to present a credible fiscal plan moving forward.

I will be voting for Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Whomever you decide to support, please get out there and vote — and vote all the way to the bottom of the ballot, including statewide races and state legislative races. Those lower races get less attention, but tend to have more of a direct impact on our everyday lives. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. You do not need photo ID to vote, although you may be asked to offer one.

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