Don’t Be Scared of Bernie

In an email exchange with a few of my friends today about Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become our next president, one of my friends asked, “Am I crazy in being worried that his presence opens the door for one of these crazy ass Republicans to become president?…Sanders is extreme enough to rally the conservative base and actually push one of these losers to the forefront.”

Another of my friends chimed in, “I’m with you…I could see some fringe Republican wacko beating Sanders. It would be the battle of the extremists and Sanders could lose…I guess the only question is if Sanders can become a mainstream candidate, but that seems unlikely.”

I suspect there are many Democrat-leaning individuals in the electorate who feel the same way as my friends, so as a hard-core liberal living in the great state of Vermont, I’ll do my best to explain why those of you who agree with Bernie on most (if not all) of the issues don’t need to be afraid that his victory in the Democratic primaries might only result in a Republican wacko winning the White House in the general election.

First, as Juan Cole wrote recently for Informed Comment, “Sanders’s positions are quite mainstream from the point of view of the stances of the American public in general.” Cole backs that up with some recent Gallup polling data that shows 63% of Americans say that the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. is unfair and 52% favor heavy taxes on the rich as a fix for that. Since this will be Bernie’s primary issue in the election, it’s safe to say his stance is mainstream.

Cole continues to go down the list, showing how Bernie’s positions on campaign-finance reform, the student-debt crisis, and climate change line up with the vast majority of Americans.

But we all know that it’s not what a candidate stands for that gets him or her elected. What gets candidates elected is money. And if Bernie is going to take on the millionaires and billionaires with such fervor, then all of that money is going to flow to whomever it is that opposes him.

Thankfully, Bernie has some experience with this. In 2006, Congressman Sanders decided he wanted to become Senator Sanders, and he ran for the open seat. His Republican opponent was a man named Richard Tarrant. Along with being a former fourth-round draft pick of my beloved Boston Celtics (he was cut before the first game of the 1965 season), Tarrant cofounded IDX Systems, a healthcare technology company in South Burlington, Vermont, that he would later sell to GE for $1.2 billion. Though he announced his candidacy a few months before the sale, Tarrant was already one of the wealthiest individuals in the state, contributing $7 million to his own campaign.

The 2006 election would become the most expensive in Vermont history, with the candidates spending over $13 million to become the next Senator to represent our tiny state. In a report that NBC News put together after the election that calculated the cost per vote each candidate received across the country, Tarrant spent, nationally, the most money per vote of any candidate, a whopping $85 per vote; Bernie, on the other hand, spent $34 per vote. And the result? Bernie defeated him by 33 percentage points.

Now, $13 million is nothing compared to the $889 million the Koch Brothers have already budgeted for the 2016 election, so let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that Bernie has any real experience with combatting such a well-funded machine. But it’s important to note the success against Tarrant, and his original success at winning the position of Burlington’s mayor, because what those victories show is Bernie’s fortitude, his unflinching commitment to fighting hard for what he thinks is right.

You also have to realize just how angry people are right now. They’re angry in Kansas. They’re angry in Texas. And they’re angry in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And who are they angry at? They’re angry at the establishment. They’re angry at Congress. They’re angry at Obama (and for those who aren’t angry at him, they’re at least disappointed in him). They’re angry at Wall Street. They’re angry at CNN, FOX, and NBC. They’re angry at Time Warner and Comcast. Angry at AT&T and Verizon. Angry at Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. At Monsanto and Starbucks. At Hollywood and New York. At the Texas State School Board and ExxonMobile. People are friggin’ angry.

You know who else is angry? Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he’s not afraid to express it. Just listen to him tell some anti-Israeli hecklers at a town hall meeting in Vermont last summer to shut up. The guy simply doesn’t care about the spit and polish and general showmanship that everyone expects in their politicians. And that anger and that authenticity are going to resonate with a wide swath of the electorate, Democrat and Republican.

So, to sum up: he’s got mainstream stances, knows how to beat better funded candidates, and has the character and attitude to attract votes from both sides of the aisle. Which means that unless your name is Hillary or you’re one of the 32,000 Republican Wackos running for president next year, there’s simply no reason for you to be scared of Bernie.

Minnesota’s Question of the Year

A friend sent me an article about Minnesota’s Great American Think-Off, which poses a question for people to answer in essays of 750 words or less. Four writers will then debate the question, and the winner will receive a $500 prize (FYI: this post is not my answer).

This year’s question is: “Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

While I love the idea of a “think off,” I don’t think the question is a very good one because, as in all things ethics-related, the answer turns on context. There are a thousand different examples we could come up with where the ethical thing would be to stick to your principles, and a thousand more where the ethical action would be to compromise.

One of my college professors, Steven Fesmire, wrote a book, John Dewey & Moral Imagination, in which he makes the analogy that being ethical is like playing jazz. Quoting Martha Nussbaum, he writes, “a responsible action is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic.” The jazz metaphor “spotlights and illustrates the empathetic, impromptu, and inherently social dimensions of moral composition,” by which he means, taking a moral/ethical action requires recognizing the social dimension of the problem at hand, understanding and empathizing with how all parties feel and what they’re trying to achieve, and then having the skill to add your own voice and interests in such a way as to contribute, build, and improve upon the general harmony of the moment.

To ask whether it is more ethical to stick to your principles or compromise is like asking whether it’s better to have a saxophone or trumpet in your quartet. The only responsible answer is to say, “Well, it depends.”

Ethics are not written in stone. Like jazz, they are improvisational while also aligning with received tradition and continuous feedback. You can’t write down a list of ethics. All you can do is develop your sense of empathy and add your authentic voice to the song that’s being played.

On Arguments Against Stricter Gun Control

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, a lot of people I’m friends with on Facebook have reacted with posts defending the right of Americans to keep and bear arms. Those posts have argued that individuals who are intent on committing violent atrocities will do so regardless of their access to weapons (i.e., guns don’t kill people; people do). They have also argued that if only more members of society would take advantage of their right to carry a gun, then there would be more opportunities for violent individuals to be stopped (i.e., we need more people concealing and carrying their weapons in public spaces). And finally, they’ve argued that if we enact stricter gun control regulations, then only those individuals who have ill intentions will be the ones carrying the guns (i.e., when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns).

The first argument — “guns don’t kill people; people do” — falls down when you consider that access to a deadly weapon allows impulsive acts to be carried out much easier than those acts for which time and planning is required. We can look to suicides as an example of this. According to a 2001 study of people who committed near-lethal suicide attempts, “24% took less than 5 minutes between the decision to kill themselves and the actual attempt, and 70% took less than one hour.” While not all of those suicide attempts were gun based, another study found, after controlling for various characteristics such as alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education, that “the presence of one or more guns in the home was found to be associated with an increased risk of suicide.”

These studies focus on suicide, of course, and we’re talking about homicides, but the point I’m trying to make is that the presence of guns in a home allows people to act on their impulses in a way that is lethal. Sometimes those impulses will be directed at oneself, but often times they’re directed at someone else. While that impulse can obviously be acted upon in other manners (as the knife attacks in China show), reducing the number of guns available would decrease the opportunity for deranged individuals to act on their deadliest impulses.

The Harvard School of Public Heath recently completed a survey of the academic literature and found that “where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.” That held true across nations (controlling for income) and across states (controlling for poverty, urbanization, age groups, unemployment, alcohol consumption, and non-homicidal crime). While it may seem true that “guns don’t kill people; people do,” a more accurate statement reads, “guns don’t kill people, but wherever guns are present, more people choose to kill.”

If we accept that access to guns increases the chances that individuals will be able to act on their wildest impulses, then the second argument — that the best way to stop gun violence is to give more people guns — falls apart. This particular argument seems predicated on the notion that criminals would be frightened to commit any acts of crime on the increased chances that one or more of their potential victims would also be armed.

Well, let’s take a look at some data. In 2011, according to the FBI, 72 law-enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty. 63 of those officers were killed with firearms, and 50 of those were killed with handguns. Five of those officers had their guns stolen from them, and three of them were killed with their own guns. 10 of the officers attempted to fire their weapons, while 27 of them actually fired their weapon. 46 of the 63 officers were wearing body armor.

(By contrast, in 2011 in Canada, where guns are legal but strictly controlled, there were 173 firearm homicides. That’s 173 total; not simply law-enforcement victims, but all victims.)

If 63 armed and trained and supremely cautious law-enforcement officers can be killed by criminals, what makes you think Joe Six-Shooter could stop a deranged gunman who is wielding a semiautomatic or automatic weapon?

On top of that is about a decade’s worth of studies finding that conceal & carry laws do not deter gun violence (see this Media Matters article for a summary of the various studies). In fact, a few of those studies have even found that crime increases in states with conceal & carry laws. While the National Research Council (NRC) concluded in 2004 that the data does not make it possible to draw any “causal link between between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates,” a 2010 study re-examined the NRC’s analysis and said that right-to-carry laws “likely increase the rate of aggravated assault.”

All of which is to say that real-world data does not support the argument that conceal and carry laws stop individuals from carrying out their most lethal impulses, and that even those gun-carrying individuals who are trained to use their weapon against criminals often find themselves on the wrong end of a bullet.

The third proposition — when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will carry guns — is an outgrowth of the second argument, that more guns in the hands of more people will prevent more attacks from taking place. As with the arguments against the efficacy of conceal and carry laws, so it is here: the same real-world data does not support the assertion, and the same “more guns equals more killings” data argues against it.

What’s more, the proposition that only outlaws will have guns neglects the reality that our society includes armed law-enforcement officers, so the proposition is false on the face of it. A better version would read, “When guns are outlawed, police officers will have a better tool to determine who is an outlaw and who is not.”

In a fantastic and sprawling article in New York Magazine, “The Truce on Drugs: What happens now that the war has failed?,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports on the way Baltimore reduced the murder rate in its city (along with the number of arrests they made). The key was to stop focusing on busting drug dealers and users and instead focus on individuals with prior weapons charges.

Encoded in Baltimore’s murder records was a singularly interesting piece of data: Over half of the murderers in [the] city had previously been arrested for a handgun violation. The universe of offenders in Baltimore with prior gun convictions was very small, and most of them were serious criminals. Focusing on them seemed plausible. The commissioner did not publicly declare the war on drugs a failure, though he believes that to be the case, or petition the legislature to decriminalize possession. “We just deemphasized it,” [the former police commissioner of Baltimore] says.

Which is to say, police officers in Baltimore could use the fact of gun possession (in conjunction with gun violations) as a way to concentrate on stopping homicides. Not every gun owner was a murderer, of course, but over half of the murderers had guns. By prohibiting conceal and carry, we’d make it easier for law enforcement officials to arrest the bad guys.

Now, to be sure, I’m not arguing that we should ban guns entirely. I used to hold that view, but after living in Vermont for a decade, where the responsible use of guns are part of the culture, I now understand the values held by hunters and their families, and I fully support the right to purchase and use hunting rifles, but I do not and cannot understand why it is legal for individuals to buy automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

I also do not support the ownership of handguns. A 1998 study done by the Center for Injury Control at Emory University in Atlanta found that “for every time a gun in the home was used in self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

More recent data, taken from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that (quoting from David Frum’s analysis for CNN) “an American is 50% more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant.”

In short, handguns do a ton more harm than good, and there’s just no reason for that.

“Well,” handgun proponents will say, “What about self-defense?”

The reality is that the chances that your home will be invaded by an armed assailant are rare, and falling steadily with the rest of the country’s crime rate. While there are no statistics for home invasions (no such crime exists; we charge home invaders for specific crimes such as burglary, rape, aggravated robbery, trespassing, etc., and not the broader “home invasion”), Home Invasion News tried to pin down some kind of number by running a Google News search over 24 hours to see how many stories came back. They found 50. There are over 115 million housing units in the United States, which means, on any given day, you have a 0.00004% chance of having your home invaded; in a given year, you have a 0.015% chance. Those percentages seem way too low to accept the increased risk that you or your loved ones will kill or injure yourself or someone else thanks to the presence of that handgun.

All of which is to say: the arguments in favor of the widespread ownership of guns seems highly flawed to me. And I wish people on Facebook would stop making them, unless they’re prepared to truly back up their argument with real-world data.

Where Demagoguery Can Lead You

Earlier this morning, I led my high school students through a discussion of Waiting for Godot. The students will be making a film trailer for their version of the play (we won’t actually perform the play; just make a trailer for it), so I showed them a bunch of YouTube clips of  various performances and commercials for performances. I also wanted them to see how Godot has influenced playwriting and scriptwriting throughout the 20th century, in case they want to do a trailer for a more creative interpretation of the play.

One of the influences we discussed was Beckett’s use of language, the way he sets the language free, allowing it to take command of his characters rather than the other way around (see Lucky’s monologue for the prime example of this). To get to this point, I showed the students a clip from the BBC sketch show, A Bit from Fry and Laurie, where Fry and Laurie, in a very funny way, discuss this very thing.

In the sketch, Stephen Fry makes a hilarious yet intelligent argument about various elements of the English language, and wonders whether English would even allow such a thing as demagoguery. Fry imagines that, had Hitler been speaking in English to an English audience, the people wouldn’t have been riled up by his words, but rather would have laughed at them. This led me to ask the students if they knew what demagoguery is, which then led to me asking whether they’d ever seen Hitler speak.

And it turns out they hadn’t. So off we went again to YouTube, where we found a Hitler speech that included English subtitles.

Anyway, during the speech, which seems to be a kind of coming out party for the Nazis, Hitler talks about when it was difficult to be a National Socialist in Germany. But he says, even then, “when our Party consisted of only seven members, it already had two principles. First, it would be a party with a true ideology. And second, it would be, uncompromisingly, the one and only power in Germany.”

Okay, so we watch that and move on as a class to talk about the ideas for the trailer.

But here’s the thing. Just a few minutes ago, during a quick break, I checked the front page of the NY Times, and what did I see? An article about the Tea Party candidate who just defeated Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in a primary challenge. The blurb of the article reads, “Richard Mourdock, who defeated Senator Richard G. Lugar in Indiana’s primary, rides motorcycles, runs marathons and believes only one party can prevail.”

Now, I don’t want to say that Republicans (or Tea Partiers) are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous statement used by ridiculous people to make ridiculous points in a political argument. But it is telling that Hitler’s principles above — a party with a true ideology and a uncompromising dedication to becoming the one and only power in the country — are more transferable to the Republican party than to the Democrats. It’s easy to imagine Republicans (or Tea Partiers) coalescing around a demagogic leader who brooks no compromises and rallies the faithful to the “fixed pole” of an ideology. It’s less easy to imagine a Democrat who draws a line in the sand.

The question, of course, is whether President Obama should be categorized as a demagogue. I suggest that he should not. He is a gifted and inspiring speaker, that much is true, but demagogues appeal to prejudices and fears, whereas President Obama appeals to hopes and dreams.

I think it can be safely said that the Republicans run on a fear-based platform that appeals to Americans’ xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and ignorance. I’m not suggesting the Democrats are a heck of a lot better — after all, Democrats seem to be demonizing successful entrepreneurs, as well as some of those who are bound by religious/moral precepts — but generally speaking, the Republican platform has a lot more enemies in it than does the Democrats’.

Some examples from Governor Romney’s website:

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan: “We are not safe from enemies who plot freely against us from the other side of the world”
  • China and East Asia: “If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia”
  • Iran: “The result [of Iran improving its ballistic missiles] will be a nightmarish cascade of nuclear tensions in the world’s most volatile region. Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism would take on a new and terrifying dimension.”
  • Latin America: “Decades of remarkable progress in Latin America toward security, democracy, and increased economic ties with America are currently under threat.
  • Energy: “…for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”
  • Healthcare: “[Obamacare] will make America a less attractive place to practice medicine, discourage innovators from investing in life-saving technology, and restrict consumer choice.”
  • Immigration: “A porous border allows illegal immigrants to enter the United States, violent cartel members and terrorists possibly among them.”
  • Labor: “Unions drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation.”
  • Regulation: “Regulations…drive up costs, hinder investment, and destroy jobs.”

If we compare that to Pres. Obama’s policies, we find that:

  • his economic policies, while addressing “too big to fail” and abusive financial practices, don’t have a real enemy
  • his education policies speak to an expansion of education (more grants, easier loans, protections from high interest, etc.)
  • his energy policy, which is an “all of the above strategy,” tries to strike a balance between environmental protections and energy production
  • he has a whole page dedicated to “equality,” where Romney has a page dedicated to “values”; the former looks at ways the president has expanded opportunity, while the latter focuses on the governor’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, stop stem-cell research, and “protect” marriage
  • the President’s healthcare policies also talk more about expansion than protection
  • his national security policies reduce our number of enemies to one (Al Qaeda) rather than expanding the list to include China, Russia, Iran, and parts of Latin America
  • his tax policies do go after millionaires and billionaires, but his wording attacks the tax code (and hence, the legislators who created the tax code) more than it does the people who benefit from the tax code
  • his policies on women’s health continues the argument of expanding opportunity
  • at no point does the President attack or demonize anyone or anything, not even the Republicans

Again, to bring it back to demagoguery, I’m not saying Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans are Nazis. I’m just saying that, after watching Hitler speak this morning and then seeing a NY Times article about a Tea Party candidate who won a Republican primary, I immediately saw how the Fürher’s words resonate in today’s political climate.

The Republican Brotherhood

During All Things Considered yesterday, Robert Siegel interviewed an Egyptian parliamentarian named Abdul Mawgoud Rageh Dardery. Dardery is a member of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. If you remember, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that calls for Sharia law while also remaining dedicated to democratic principles. In Egypt’s democratic elections following the fall of Mubarak, the Freedom and Justice Party won over half of the seats in the country’s new parliament, but they also insisted they would not run a candidate for president. This was meant to inspire good will between the Brotherhood and those revolutionaries who had fought for the creation of a modern democracy in Egypt.

Well, last month, the Brotherhood broke their promise and nominated a candidate. Siegel’s interview with Dardery focused on that broken promise, with all of his questions dripping with the West’s distrust for the Muslim Brotherhood. Dardery, I thought, answered every question with aplomb, but his answers aren’t what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are the questions.

Each question that Siegel had for Dardery implied that the Muslim Brotherhood has an obligation, for the good of its country’s democracy, to find a balance between the forces of moderation and the forces of fundamentalism. Here are the questions he asked the parliamentarian:

  • The prior policy of not running a candidate had been taken by some liberal secular Egyptians or Christian Egyptians as a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood did not intend to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned at this point that your movement will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Associated Press reported this week that your party’s candidate for president…promised a group of of ultraconservative Muslim clerics, or at least they say he promised them, that clerics would be given the power to review legislation to ensure that it’s in line with Islamic law. First of all, is that a position, as you understand it, of your party, and isn’t that awfully close to implementing Islamic law as the law of the land in Egypt?

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Arab Spring is that the ideas of the intelligentsia and the ideas of the leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the mass of people who have not experienced life beyond their country’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find…that Salafists, who take a much more militant religious view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Again, Dardery answered every question with aplomb, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of those questions could be rephrased so that, instead of being addressed to the Muslim Brotherhood, they could be addressed to the Republican Party.

Let’s give it a try:

  • The prior policy of being willing to work with the opposing side to find common ground had been taken by some liberal-secularist Democrats and Christian Democrats as a sign that the Republican Party would not try to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned  at this point that your party will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Washington Post has reported that your party’s former Vice President, Dick Cheney, allowed oil executives to review his administration’s energy policy before submitting it to Congress; Bloomberg has reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based, conservative think-tank supported by the Koch brothers and ExxonMobile, provides “model legislation” to representatives in various state houses, who then help turn that legislation into law; and now, with over 100 new lawmakers coming to Washington last year, corporate lobbyists are flocking to the staffs of Republican politicians in Congress. First of all, is it the position of your party to allow the moneyed interests to write and review its legislation, and isn’t that awfully close to turning our democracy into an plutocracy? 

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Tea Party movement (if not before, with the rise of the Evangelical’s political power) is that the ideas of the Republican intelligentsia and the ideas of the Republican leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the masses of people who have not experienced life beyond their state’s or their county’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find that Tea Partiers and Evangelicals, who take a much more militant view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Unfortunately, I don’t think a single Republican politician would answer those questions with as much aplomb as the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Dardery talked about respecting the views of the opposing parties, of needing to educate the public so that radical views and heavy propaganda don’t brainwash the minds of less educated voters, of having elected officials be the ones who write and decide on laws, of the importance for having people being willing to listen to one another more than they talk to one another, of offering moderate alternatives so the people can see moderation being modeled, etc.

The Republican Party believes in none of that.

Rather than argue policies on their merits, they call their opponents socialists and terrorists.

Rather than passing laws to improve education in the United States and teach ideas that are “very worldly and very cosmopolitan and much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy,” they promote the antithesis of science and art and multicultural learning.

Rather than helping to curtail radical views and heavy propaganda, their leaders regularly attempt to codify those views into law, regularly placate the most inflammatory voices in their party, and regularly promote a news channel that actively makes its viewers less informed.

Rather than encouraging its members to open their minds and hearts to cultures that may be different from theirs, they attempt to capitalize on xenophobia and ignorance.

Rather than offering their party members moderate choices among their politicians, they chase moderates from the party or challenge incumbent moderates with primary challenges from the far-right of their party, with those challengers (not to mention all the party’s presidential candidates, including the presumed nominee) running on a “brook no compromise” pledge.

Rather than trying to earn support through rational arguments based on facts and evidence, they regularly lie in order to promote a given agenda.

All of which is to say, as a country dedicated to “contemporary thoughts about democracy,” which include requiring politicians of integrity and voters who are educated about the issues and where politicians stand, America needs to recognize that the Republican Party is actively ruining democracy in this country, just as they fear the Muslim Brotherhood will ruin democracy’s chances in Egypt.

The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Republican Brotherhood is only a question of which type of radical laws they’d like to initiate. The Muslim Brotherhood wants a Sharia state; the Republican Brotherhood wants an ultra-capitalist one.

As Americans who believe in the freedom of religion and the compassion of a social safety net, we should oppose both.

The Republican Field

The Republican Field
Image via

I’m one of those idiots who’ve watched every publicized debate of the Republican primaries thus far. I’m a liberal. I’m very liberal. But I’ve watched the debates because — as I teach my students — it’s my duty as a citizen to be an informed voter. While I won’t be voting in my state’s Republican primary, one of these gentlemen will be running in the general election, and I want to know as much about them as possible.

The debates aren’t the only place to learn about them, of course. I could visit their election websites and read up on their positions; I could track down their records to find out how they’ve actually voted on the issues; I could read their books to analyze what kinds of minds they have; etc.

But the debates are perhaps the only time we’ll see these men gathered in a room, forced to confront someone else who’s interest runs into conflict with their own: they all want that seat in the Oval Office, and they don’t want any of their fellow Republicans (let alone the President) to stand in their way. Between the heat of their opponents and the heat of the television cameras, the debates give us the best opportunity to see how these candidates hold up under fire.

It’s not just about “fire” though. The debates also show us how these candidates think on their feet.

That might be the most disappointing thing about Governor Mitt Romney. At almost every moment, it’s possible to see behind his rhetoric to the political machination that drives his speech. The narrative on Governor Romney is that, much like Senator John Kerry in 2004, his sense of humanity is robotic; he has, as they say, an empathy problem, one that probably stems from being incredibly rich.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way his political ambition looms larger than anything he says on stage. Where the debates are supposed to show us how the politicians think on their feet, with Governor Romney, all we get are the words and phrases that will get him closer to his goal.

The best example of this was his response to the final question in last week’s debate in Arizona. The CNN moderator asked the candidates to explain what the public’s biggest misconception about them might be. Congressman Paul believed the misconception was the media’s insistence that he could not win in a general election, despite a recent poll showing that Paul is the only Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in November. Speaker Gingrich said he wished people understood how much work went into his achievements as Speaker of the House (a balanced Federal budget, welfare reform, low unemployment, etc.). Senator Santorum gave an answer similar to Congressman Paul’s, except his argument did not rest on a poll; rather, it spoke to the fact that the election against the President will be much like his primary race against Governor Romney: he’ll have to “do a lot with a little” in order to defeat an opponent who has the support of the media and a seemingly unlimited treasure of funds.

Governor Romney, however, decided to give a concluding statement rather than answer the question. About twenty seconds into his answer, the moderator reminded him that the question had to do with the people’s misconception about him, but the governor responded, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers that I want.” And then he continued to give what sounded like the final paragraph from his stump speech.

It reminded me of the argumentative technique he displayed in his encounter with an AP reporter who doubted his words in a campaign stop at Staples. Instead of debating the reporter on the grounds of the argument, the governor just repeated the same phrase over and over again.

What these events revealed was that Governor Romney doesn’t actually “think on his feet.” He has a thing he needs to say, and he says it, again and again, regardless of what the person across from him says in his response.

Between those two interactions, it’s easy to see the man who once drove from Massachusetts to Canada with a dog strapped to the roof of his car, and it’s even easier to understand why most polls have President Obama defeating the governor by between five and ten points.

Weirdly enough, with his wins in Arizona and Michigan last night, Romney is close to clinching the nomination. He still has to make it through Super Tuesday, when half of the required delegates go up for grabs, but with last night’s victories, the momentum is his to lose. His only real competitor at this point is Senator Rick Santorum, and though I might be a liberal, if I were a member of the Republican base, Senator Santorum would be the only candidate who would speak to me.

Here’s the thing about the senator. You have to give him some credit for being a man of his convictions. Even on the issue that gave him the most trouble at the Arizona debates — his vote for No Child Left Behind coupled with his promise to repeal No Child Left Behind — you could see his conviction at work. On that particular issue, the conviction that held sway in his decision was not that parents and local communities should be in charge of their schools, but that members of a party should support their leader. While he admits to making a mistake in voting for No Child Left Behind, he makes a reasonable argument for why he voted against his conscious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Santorum would be a horrible thing for this country. Not only would we be at war with Iran within the first eighteen months of his administration (something that may be true for the other candidates as well, excepting Congressman Paul), but we’d also see some of the most “severely conservative” judges being placed on the nation’s benches (not just Supreme Court judges either). If you add on a Republican majority in the House and Senate, who would most likely support the majority of the paleoconservative president’s agenda, then you start to see how scary a Santorum Administration could be.

But I say all that as a liberal. If I were a member of the Republican base, then a Santorum Administration would be a wet dream of conservative policies.

The other two candidates — Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul — are merely also-rans at this point. I think a Gingrich Administration would be an interesting one, and I fear it a lot less than I fear a Santorum Administration. The Speaker is as much a Washington insider as one could be, and while I wouldn’t agree with most of his policies, I do think his idea on reforming the government based on modern management theory could be interesting (despite the fact I’m not 100% sure what he means). And I get somewhat excited by his combination of ridiculously wacky/ambitious ideas with his proven ability to get things done in Washington. The things he’d want to get done — I’d disagree with probably 98% of it — but there’d at least be some major reforms, even if not in a direction I’d like. His presidency would probably suck for the country, but at least it’d be interesting.

A Paul Administration, on the other hand, would be impotent. They’d have a million ideas on how to change things, but the backing of zero members of Congress would ensure that none of it would get done. He’d be fighting not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.

So that’s the field: an openly-ambitious politician who exudes zero empathy with the middle class; a principled paleoconservative who scares moderates (not to mention a majority of women; in Michigan’s primary, the senator lost “every category of women polled… including working women, single women, and married women”); a self-proclaimed grandiose thinker whose career contains almost as many scandals as his former rival, President Clinton; and a radical libertarian whose various policies offend three hallmarks of the Republican base: defense hawks, the business class, and social conservatives.

As Molly Ball wrote this week in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Can’t The GOP Race Settle Down“:

In Reagan’s day, the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party.

Zero-sum competition requires a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their zero-sum struggle will probably result in the nomination of Governor Romney: a zero man who stands for nothing but his own victory. And that kind of candidate will not win in November.