As the professional fields for the 2012 BMW Berlin and Bank of America Chicago Marathons have been announced, it reminds us that the marathon requires a different combination of strengths than its shorter-race cousins where contact is the name of the game. In the longer race you can moderate early, and still strike late. Last year in Chicago, Wesley Korir made the first major move at 30Km, but it was eventual winner Moses Mosop who made the last. That said, it is very difficult mentally to allow others to “get away” without responding in the initial engagement or not to get too discouraged with one’s inability to match that first move. Patience remains key in the marathon.
The same principle holds in politics where the instant response can, in the long run, be ill-advised or misguided. We saw an indication of that this week when Mitt Romney issued a harsh condemnation of the Obama administration after the attacks at American embassies in Benghazi, Libya and Cairo, Egypt on the anniversary of 9/11.
“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” the candidate said in a prepared release.
Of course, the response he denounced wasn’t released by the White House, but by the American embassy in Cairo where hostilities were mounting outside their compound. Also, their statement came out before the assault in Benghazi which led to the death of American Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others.
There is an old Washington adage that partisanship ends at the water’s edge. In times of crisis, goes the theory, Americans of all political stripes rally to our elected leaders – like we did for President Bush 11 years ago on 9/11 – not only because they hold the constitutional reins of authority, but because they are privy to more information, so we must assume they know things we don’t which might color their decisions.
Therefore, even if we disagree with their response or policies, we wait to voice those disagreements until information clarifies the situation in the aftermath of crisis. Only then do we assert our opposition and rally others to vote on our behalf. But ambition is a powerful lure, especially in the heat of a presidential election, especially when you have recently come under fire from your own partisan punditry for lack of clarity on the financial positions you propose to adopt if elected.
“A slave has but one master,” wrote 17th century French essayist Jean de La Bruyère. “An ambitious man has many masters as there are people who may be useful in bettering his position.”
This may well be the fault line of the Romney candidacy, a lack of fixed political views now subordinated to those who may be useful, but whose passions and prejudices outpace the wisdom required of the office he seeks.
In giving himself over to the wing of his party that doesn’t share or reflect his own past – moderate Republican governor of a decidedly Blue state – Governor Romney betrays his own ambition, but at the same time gives evidence to the very lack of leadership that he seeks our votes to confer upon him. Now, even his own side is massaging its brow, wondering how they managed to nominate someone so unlike themselves in an election cycle once seemingly designed for their return to power.
Though the American election process is not pretty, in fact it is often quite petty, it is revelatory. Over time the qualities we seek in our leaders are revealed either through accretion or by sudden shocks to the system, and the response the candidates have to those crises.
In September 2008 the subprime mortgage crisis precipitated the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the government bailout of AIG, American International Group. In the midst of that domestic upheaval, Senator John McCain first announced that the “fundamentals of the U.S. economic system are strong”, before suspending his campaign – and a scheduled presidential debate – so that he could return to Washington to work with Congress on the proposed rescue plan designed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Two days later Mr. McCain announced that he would resume his campaign, and went ahead with the debate. That series of hop-scotch responses proved to be the turning point in the election. Question is, have we just witnessed one for 2012 for almost exactly the same lack of executive control?