By Crispin Sartwell
In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" That question is about the past, but what the American people care about is the future. Thus, as I try to figure out how to cast my vote for president, I ask myself and America an even more profound question: Who would you prefer to watch on television for the next four years?
The candidates remind us that the stakes are high: social justice as against individual liberty; a positive vision of all of us helping each of us as against a release of the entrepreneurial spirit that made this country great; subordination to a gigantic government as against subordination to gigantic corporations. The American dream itself, or at least the precise form of its annihilation, hangs in the balance.
On the other hand, the way the candidates and their parties embody these gigantic and inspiring values in actual policy consists of minor adjustments to the tax code, which they can't actually achieve.
Various policy initiatives of the next president might affect me, of course; the best recent example I can think of is that I can keep my daughter Emma on my health insurance for a couple of more years thanks to Obama's healthcare law. But by far the most concrete effect of the President of the United States on my actual life is that the occupant of that office has unfettered access to my television screen.
Unlike Emma, who lives in Colorado, he'll be right there, in my living room and yours, day after day, week after week, etc. There will be States of the Union, press conferences, emergency addresses to the American people, world travels with the press corps in tow, pseudo-intimate interviews. If I am going to vote my own self-interest, the fundamental issue is entertainment.
And so America has to ask itself: As President of the United States of America, who is going to be funnier? Who more able to touch your heart and bring a tear to your eye? Whose face would you rather look at all day? The stakes are indeed dramatic.
There is no doubt that Obama is at his best an uplifting speaker. Not at his best, he is inanimate, delivering a perfunctory teleprompter rendition of his address on the Gulf oil spill or the Supreme Court decision. And the inspiration has faded with the repetition.
Barack Obama has already been on television all the time for a good five years. Even excellent TV characters run out of momentum around then. An important exception is Carly Benson-Quartermaine-Corinthos-Alcazar-Jacks on General Hospital, who's been chugging along as a classic soap opera super-bitch for the better part of two decades. However, she's been played by at least three different actresses. Obama might want to try that approach.
Likewise, I was hoping for a more riveting, or at least more amusing, Republican candidate. The madcap hijinks of a Michele Bachmann or a Rick Perry - their zany, Lucille-Ball-meets-Zooey-Deschanel personae - would have made every day a joy and a misadventure. Into what hilarious pratfalls they might have pushed this great nation only Jesus knows, though my own view is that without a filibuster-proof Republican majority in the Senate, they wouldn't have taken us much of anywhere.
I just don't think Romney can carry a series or indeed a country for a whole season, much less four or eight. The chances of someone like that launching an unpopular war, building an electrified border fence, or banning abortion - any of which would make for good television - seem slim.
In some respects, Romney certainly has what it takes to succeed on a high-def flatscreen; indeed, he has such facility that he could portray anyone doing anything. He's like a male Meryl Streep, whose performance as Seabiscuit was so convincing that it was never detected. Romney would make a beautiful Seabiscuit. But when he portrays himself, he portrays a very uninteresting creature.
Romney's problem is that the television audience wants to follow a coherent, compelling character through the whole run of the show. I watch television to connect my deep humanity, if any, to the deep humanity of the characters. I come to think of them - Kyra Sedgwick as The Closer, for example, or the members of Big Time Rush - as my closest, indeed as my only, friends. Mitt Romney is a pretty decent actor. But "Mitt Romney" is a painfully dull character. And politics is about character.
And so, because I so cherish this picturesque land of freedom and its rich history of television entertainment, I will be voting for Gary Johnson.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His most recent book is Political Aesthetics.