This column was finished several days ago but held because of last night’s debate. Believing the debate offered no fresh insights, these are my pre- and post-debate views.
Writing about politics is discouraging and unnerving. Unnerving, because we live in a time of rhetorical trip-wires. Words and phrases that seem descriptive turn out to be somehow insulting.
Discouraging, because few writers go beyond Donald Trump’s latest outrage, which is, of course, simply a repetition of a long established pattern of conduct. Trump loves it.
Recall P. T. Barnum who was once interviewed by a woman who told him that she was writing a book, and that it would contain something disagreeable about him. “No matter, madam,” was his reply, “say anything you like about me, but spell my name right — P. T. B-a-r-n-u-m, P. T. Barnum — and I’ll be pleased anyway.” Quote Investigator
One benefit to living in Maryland is that the candidates don’t target the State with advertisements. The State is taken for granted—too bad. If it weren’t for yard signs—dueling shout-outs—you could almost forget we will soon be electing a President. Yet, how nice it is to escape much of the harsh manufactured rhetoric.
There was a time several decades ago when I was deeply involved in elective politics—fortunately a more benign version. During that time, I learned polling analysis under the watchful eye of Bob Teeter, who was then one of the preeminent Republican pollsters.
One of Bob’s observations was that late campaign momentum usually ran to the candidate’s ceiling. The numerical ceiling was composed of those who were simply not open to the momentum candidate’s appeal. My sense is that President Trump now has the momentum as he campaigns, not for his vision, but against the amalgamation of leftist causes earlier associated with Senator Bernie Sanders.
But for Mr. Trump there is an unwelcome question—what is the ceiling? My sense is that it is too low for him to win. Unpopular as this view might be, I predict Biden will win because Trump lost.
While it will be claimed there is now an obligation for a Biden presidency to pursue a Leftist agenda, he will do so at considerable peril. Joe Biden’s finishing momentum in the Democratic primaries was a reflection of Senator Sander’s electoral ceiling. A majority of Democrats didn’t buy his agenda and Biden was the alternative.
If Biden wins, the result, in my view, will be loud and clear. There is a critical mass that, regardless of policy positions, wants decency back in the White House. One notable characteristic of most Trump supporters, past and present, is that while they support many of his policies, they are embarrassed by his conduct.
Joe Biden is campaigning on “decency” and the related theme of uniting Americans. I anticipate that these overriding themes and the President’s inability to control his self-love will prevail.
But, back to the race as I know it today. In a sense, the “decency” part will be relatively easy—the bar is embarrassingly low. The uniting part is going to be difficult. If Biden is true to the theme, he will reject 20th century socio-economic theories, their costs and failures.
We live in the artificial intelligence (AI) century—databases and machine learning are game changers. Google and Amazon prove the change every single day in most of our lives. Intelligent systems both know us and can shape and distribute messages that influence our lives.
This capability comes with dangers and opportunities. But, on the opportunity side, intelligent systems must be conceived, built, shaped and led by people whose knowledge of these systems began at elementary school age. Trump and Biden were elementary school age in the 1940s and 50s.
The pandemic has been instructive on several levels. One word is used over and over to define remedial policies—efficacy. Efficacy means: “capacity for producing a desired result or effect; effectiveness.” While some words are being canceled, “efficacy” should be promoted. Broadly speaking, as we tackle persistent problems that we have the capacity to prevent, 21st Century tools intelligently deployed can overcome problematic inertia. Structural change is needed, not more 20th Century program overlays.
Maybe, starting in elementary school, the word efficacy should be taught, as commonly used and understood words and phrases help shape society. Left, Right and Center should begin to demand efficacy; after all it is our money that is being spent and our children and grandchildren are going to have to pick up the debt tab. Unrealizable political promises deplete; we certainly don’t need more depletion.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.