Mitt Romney reminds us of a basic political lesson.
Politicians should lie.
What's this? An academic with a career in political science at distinguished universities saying that politicians should lie?
If they don't learn it from me they'd better learn it from someone else.
Even when they tell some of the truth, they should not tell all the truth. Or they should speak in a way that conveys different truths to different audiences. And pay lip service whenever they say anything.
Hebrew adds to this lesson. Its version of lip service is מס שפתיים. Lip tax. Or a payment that must be made to keep people satisfied.
Speak truth to the power of the people?
Not if you want to be elected.
American politicians may have to obfuscate more than others, on account of their government being so important for so many people and countries. They must pay a great deal of lip service or lip tax in order to keep all the domestic and foreign interests at least minimally satisfied.
Romney violated these rules when he articulated what should be obvious to all who are realistic about Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians are not prepared to create their own country, or they can't make it happen, on account of their violent factions and the slogans repeated since 1948 that they have a monopoly of justice and all of them--along with children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren et al--will return home.
Don't fool yourselves into thinking that Palestinians' inability to create a state alongside Israel means that there will be one country with Israelis and Palestinians together.
No Israeli government I can imagine will let that happen, and no other government will force the issue.
The Palestinians seem destined to be stuck with an anomoly. No state, a considerable measure of autonomy except when they don't control the violent among them from acting against Isaelis, along with Israeli Jews living here and them among them.
It isn't neat or conventional, but it works, and no other arrangement seems feasible.
Romney also said the Iranian leadership was crazy.
Again something we should know, but not what a presidential candidate should say in public.
This is not the first time Romney's "private" remarks have gone public.
He managed to insult the British with a remark about their management of the Olympics in London. A spokesman (almost as bad as the candidate himself saying it) responded with "kiss my ass" to a reporter in Poland. A comment by the candidate leaked from a fundraiser about 47 percent of the American public who don't pay taxes and are dependent on the government has opponents licking their chops about him insulting half the electorate.
Either he doesn't know the rules of the game, or his aides don't have sufficient control over him or the people who come with cameras and recording gadgets to "closed" meetings.
What he said about Palestine and Iran is well known, but American presidents don't say those things out loud to the public.
Sometimes we wonder if they are aware of the realities..
That sentence of Hillary Clinton about Libya ("How could this happen . . . ?") still echoes and should make us concerned that American office holders really don't have a clue. That is the most disturbing possibility in the arena where vagueness, symbolism, platitudes, and obfuscation are the languages of politicians, and the rest of us understand what we want to understand.
Will Romney's honesty (or naive outspokenness) cost him the election?
Not among Israelis who notice what he said, but the vast majority of us do not vote in American elections.
Academics and journalists will argue about what shaped the outcome. As always, their problem will be to isolate one element (Romney's loose tongue) from all the other factors--personal and party traits, economic and international conditions, and events during the campaign--that will have a part in determining who wins.
In the event that he does win, will comments during the campaign affect his presidency?
According to a New York Times headline, "Middle East Comments Could Vex a Romney Administration."
However, against the possibility that Arabs and Iranians (along with Brits, Poles, and 47 percent of the American public) will carry suspicions about President Romney (if there is such a creature) out of the campaign, is the likelihood that other elements will also influence how they react to whatever he and others in his administration eventually say or do.
Along with the lesson that loose tongues are problematic is the lesson that the American government is one of the world's largest, most complex and internally competitive institutions. It speaks in many voices. There are strong competitors for the attention of the president, Congress, and key officials in the administration that shape decisions (often contradictory) that come out of the policy machinery.
One can also ponder the impact of honesty and obfuscation on the well being of democracy.
The language of politicians--and perhaps a higher percentage of successful politicians--lessens the quality of democracy insofar as voters really do not know what they are likely to get as a result of voting one way or another.
What do Obama or Romney really think?, and what do they really intend? (not the same questions) about the variety of issues they are likely to face as president?
We also know enough about government to realize that what a candidate thinks or says during a campaign need not be the same as what the victor thinks, says, and does months or years later when conditions have changed.
All of the above tells us that the words of candidates are less important than the tone, the drift, the music, perhaps also the body language, along with the national mood, and how the media portray what each says. Do not forget personal and family traditions (lots of people vote like their parents), and whatever public and personal drama occurs during the campaign. Then after the election are the fluid events domestic and international, and the many voices as to how officials should react.
Democracy may be more desirable than other forms of government, but don't imagine that reasoned debate and a studied consideration of the alternatives during a campaign determines who wins and the subsequent actions of government.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at September 20, 2012 12:17 AM