Seeking: President. Must love balanced budgets, cats.

[22 April 2007]

By Bill Reagan

According to various news outlets, the 2008 presidential election is projected to be America’s first “Billion Dollar Presidential Campaign”, during which the candidates will collectively spend more than a billion dollars in hopes of securing a seat in the Oval Office. One billion. Granted, the presidency is an employment opportunity like no other, offering power, prestige, and the ultimate line on your resume, but one billion dollars spent to secure a $400K/year position? Proportionally, that equates to two dozen people spending $38,460,000 in hopes of securing the one available $7.00/hour counter job at your local fast food restaurant. (Of course, some of those folks wouldn’t be expecting to get the counter job, they just want to be in the running because they have some really good ideas on fast food service.) 

In Washington D.C., where the diminishing value of a billion dollars causes the line “a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” to lose a bit more of its intended humor every year, the exorbitant expense of this election might be shrugged off as an inevitability—surely no one expected the cost of electing the president to go down. But outside the beltway, many are wondering what exactly they’re getting for a billion dollars these days. Looking at the current administration’s beleaguered approval ratings, it’s clear that while politics makes strange bedfellows, many Americans are waking up with second thoughts about who they invited into their bed.

Those of us living in the US give great lip service to the value of democracy, but our collective participation in the process indicates that we admire it as a noun (a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them) more than a verb (the actual exercising of that power at the voting booth.) The last four presidential elections featured turnout percentages of 55, 49, 50 and 55 percent respectively. (49 percent means that in 1996, it would have been statistically possible for a write-in candidate to have won the election without having taken a single vote from the other candidates.)

While these voter turnout figures are woefully low, a certain degree of voter cynicism is to be expected. In 1992, courtesy of a concerted independent candidacy from Ross Perot, Bill Clinton secured the presidency with just 43 percent of the nation’s support; In 2000, there was a half-million “popular vote” disparity between the two candidates, yet it required the Supreme Court to decide that the man with the most votes lost; On election day in 2004, there was almost as much talk about the dubious reliability of voting machines as there was about the votes cast upon them. Considering these results, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way to select the US president.

It will be interesting to see what a billion dollars will buy in this election campaign: most likely the same old sniping sound bytes, improbable photo opportunities and circuitous “straight talk”, all filtered through a cadre of managers, staffers and pollsters, every element of the candidate’s persona adjusted to take advantage of focus group feedback. (Remember in 2004 when the struggling Gore suddenly had a new wardrobe of earth-tone suits after an eternity in black and dark blue? It was an embarrassing display of marketing over message.)

Each oval office hopeful will repeatedly project their stylized image onto television, print, and the Internet, but will any of their genuine personalities be visible through the multi-media fog? Richard Nixon was elected twice before America learned he was a paranoid anti-Semite with a fondness for home recording; No one knew Bill Clinton was a chronic philanderer until….wait, bad example, but you know what I mean. The campaign trail offers evidence that perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s maxim was too complex: since garnering 43 percent of the votes from the 55 percent of the nation that bothers to vote can be enough to win, maybe fooling some of the people all of the time is sufficient.

Americans like to feel a personal connection with their President; to use the litmus test of our times, they want to know if he or she is the kind of person with whom they’d like to have a beer. Unfortunately, each camp knows this and spends a small fortune creating the impression that their stumper is both a connoisseur of fine microbrews and a fan of cheap canned lager, depending on the audience. In essence, presidential candidates spend 18+ months on a first date with America, and we’re all familiar with the fictions of a first date: People dress better than they normally would, they regale with their most practiced anecdotes, and they pretend to care about issues that they might normally disregard. What we need to know is not what the person will be like on their first date, but what they will be like three years into the relationship when finances are tight, the neighbors are drunk and belligerent, and a spurned ex-lover is blowing kisses from the stage of The Academy Awards.

Americans need an election process that provides a president whose values match those of the nation, unfiltered by the subtle manipulations of the spin doctors. They need a process that ensures they are not merely falling for a contestant’s charisma. (William Shatner is a charismatic figure, but I wouldn’t want Captain Kirk manning the bridge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Most of all, they need an election process that doesn’t require two years and a billion dollars to identify their next bedfellow. 

Fortunately, the technology for such an improvement already exists. There is a scientifically proven method that can match the American populace and its potential Commander in Chief on 29 crucial personality traits: Quite simply, America needs to outsource its presidential election to eHarmony.com.TM

According to eHarmony’s website, it provides more than just a dating service; its “patented Compatibility Matching SystemTM narrows the field from millions of candidates to a highly select group…with whom you share deep levels of compatibility.” Wouldn’t you like to feel a sense of compatibility with your president? (Executives in the US oil industry already do, but most of us are employed elsewhere.) eHarmony boasts that its researchers have identified 29 key dimensions that help predict great relationships, including “core traits like adaptability, curiosity, and intellect; values and beliefs, such as spirituality; and relationship skills, such as conflict resolution.” I’d like to see the Electoral College try that.

With an eHarmony Election, the process will be more affordable, more effective, and more enjoyable for the voters: 

Pre-Election
Surprisingly, eHarmony’s massive arsenal of screening questions will require little modification to convert to an election ballot, as many of its multiple choice questions (scaled from 1 to 7, with 1 being “not at all” and 7 being “very much”) will prove amply revelatory. For instance: “I try to be respectful of all opinions different than my own”; “I can handle a lot of information”; “I try to accommodate the other person’s position.” Elsewhere candidates are asked how accurately several dozen words describe them, including “liberal”, “conservative”, “optimistic”,“moral”, and “perceptive”.(Frankly, I wish moderator Jim Lehrer had asked the candidates a few of these questions during the 2004 debates.)

Of course, in light of recent administration’s more public foibles, concerned voters would want some questions pertaining directly to the conduct of a president. eHarmony could simply add a small section at the end of the questionnaire that addresses these concerns, using the1-to-7 scale. For instance, “Torture being a violation of the Geneva Convention depends on who is doing the torturing”; “Sex in the Oval Office with someone other than my wife is acceptable depending on your definition of ‘sex’”; “If people aren’t doing anything wrong, I don’t think they should mind having their phones tapped.”

Election Season
Beginning October 1, everyone in America (or the usual half of them that participate) will fill out eHarmony’s exhaustive personality profile, documenting their personal core values. There will be no campaigning, because there will be no votes to be swayed—the nation is being scientifically matched to the best candidate. The mudslinging that has tainted so many campaigns of the past will be gone, as there will be nothing to gain by mocking a candidate’s inability to pronounce “nuclear” or exposing a mid-campaign investment in Botox. There will be no news coverage, because there will be nothing to cover. (Though local news teams will surely do hard-hitting stories about the challenge of voting by dial-up.)

At the end of the season (first week of November), eHarmony will synthesize the data to develop a single composite profile called “America”. While it might seem improbable that a vegan from Seattle and a duck hunter from Poughkeepsie could be synthesized to a single composite, this is actually a highlight of the method: no longer will these two people be played against each other - - the eHarmony Election ensures that their differing views are valued equally.

Election Day
The candidates will gather in a single location and fill out the same questionnaire; for the rest of the day the experts at eHarmony will compare results (there are no names on the forms, so election tampering is not a concern) and calculate the best match for America. That night “Decision 2008” will not be a 12-hour show on every network. Instead, it will be a single one-hour show introducing the winner and his/her agenda, then a 30-minute special during which Barbara Walters will ask the new president elect about several of the more personal questions on the personality profile, followed by a special edition of The Daily Show that will purport to have accessed the president elect’s entire profile but will actually feature hilarious mock questions and answers.

That’s it. There will be no primaries, and that’s good news for Democrats, who use the primary season as an opportunity to viciously attack each other while Republicans sit in the crowd with notepads and incredulous smiles. There will be no debates, and that’s good news for Republicans, who for eight years have fielded a candidate so dangerous with the ad-lib that he apparently had to have a wireless receiver sewn into his suit so that he might be guided away from gaffs. There will be no need to exclude any third-party candidates from the election, as they are “third party” only in the eyes of the current system. That’s probably not good news for Ralph Nader, who will simply be granted a new way to discover how few people in America find his views compatible with their own.

The eHarmony Election will dispense with these preliminaries, providing Americans the leader who best represents them without asking that they spend each day of the two years prior to the actual election being told why. Best of all, there will be no need for expensive advertising spots, no need to kowtow to PACs for financial support, no need to spend money on anything at all. Even filling out the eHarmony questionnaire is free, which means there’s a billion dollars of savings that can be invested in something more substantial than a popularity contest.

Cynics will assert that the system is flawed, that any candidate could be coached to give answers that aren’t genuinely representative of their core self but are most likely to make them the winner. True, yet the same thing happens with the current system; speeches are custom-tailored for particular audiences in an effort to ingratiate the candidate to the crowd. At least with the eHarmony Election, candidates will have to develop an actual sense of who “the crowd” really is.  Detractors may also charge that just because a candidate’s values match those of America’s voters, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a good leader; by that rationale, any inarticulate C-student who has helmed a corporation into bankruptcy could wind up being president.

Hmmm, maybe that is a problem.

Photo from CatholicPeople.com

Photo from CatholicPeople.com

William Reagan is a freelance advertising copywriter specializing in compressing large concepts into short sentences. He enjoys observing the American political system in the same way voyeurs stare at car wrecks on the side of the highway, less concerned with who was involved than with the particulars of how it happened. (It's best not to drive behind him during an election year.) He squirrels away his literary acorns at WilliamReagan.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/seeking-president-must-love-balanced-budgets-cats/