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Why Do They Want to Be President?

There’s an episode of the hit TV show “The West Wing” in which the president’s likely re-election opponent is asked why he wants to be president and flubs the question. The president’s advisers enjoy a good laugh at their opponent’s mistake–until they realize their boss also doesn’t know why he wants to be president.

As life imitates art, we seem to be watching a real-life episode of this farce play out. President Obama’s State of the Union address was widely panned even by his own supporters (“immediately forgettable” wrote Dan Amira). As a campaign speech–which it was–the address was delivered by a man who has no idea why he wants to be president again. He wouldn’t mention, let alone defend, his signature pieces of legislation–health care reform and the stimulus, both of which are deeply unpopular–yet said the economy is slowly getting better. The implication was that he hadn’t really done anything, but jobs were somehow coming back anyway so he should be re-elected because if the American economy is strong enough to withstand a first term of his, it can probably withstand another one.

His would-be Republican replacements don’t fare much better. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “If elected president, Mitt Romney might consider ending a tax break that helped the former Massachusetts governor accumulate his fortune, an aide suggested Tuesday.” Well that’s a good election platform for a Republican: identify a legal, ethical, popular investment strategy that enables people to accumulate wealth, and then outlaw it. Romney is doing this because he is rich.

Actually, he’s doing this because he’s embarrassed by his own riches. The release of his tax returns would provide Romney the perfect opportunity to make the case for real tax reform. He isn’t. His financial history enables him to make the case private equity firms have had an overall (net? Net-net?) effect on the American economy that is by any honest rendering superb. He isn’t making that case either. Instead, he’s atoning for his sins, though he has committed none.

But don’t tell that to his rival, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was asked yesterday about Romney’s enforcement-first approach to immigration. Gingrich’s position on the issue is, economically speaking, probably the better plan (even if the “draft board” idea is unworkable). Gingrich can make the case his approach to immigration is more humane, more respectful, more realistic, more feasible, and more economically beneficial to the country than Romney’s. So which nuanced, wonky riposte did Gingrich choose? None of the above.

As Alana noted yesterday, this was Gingrich’s response: “You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and making $20 million for no work, to have some fantasy this far from reality.” Is he saying business leaders prefer mass deportations of illegal immigrants? Because they don’t. (That’s the point of cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants as an enforcement mechanism.) Is he saying wealthier Americans prefer harsher enforcement measures? Because the evidence suggests that isn’t the case either.

What he is saying is that a man of Romney’s wealth and privilege is less qualified to be president regardless of the issues because he would be unable to understand the lives of “normal” Americans. So are there any Republicans willing to not only refuse to echo such pronouncements but offer a sensible yet bold contrast to it? Sure, Mitch Daniels is happy to do it. He did so in his response to the State of the Union. How’s he doing in the primaries? Right, he’s not running. He thinks the debt crisis is absolutely catastrophic for this country, but he’s pretty sure someone will take care of it. And if not, well, don’t say he didn’t warn you.

This is not to suggest there are no differences between Romney and Obama or between Gingrich and Obama. But there is a puzzling incoherence. I like the spirit behind Gingrich’s resuscitation of the space program. But it’s unrealistic to suggest a permanent American moon colony won’t cost the federal government a fortune.

Gingrich criticizes the president for spending too much while trying to do too much and then proposes radical changes that would cost billions, probably trillions. And as for Romney, in one sentence he criticizes the president for demonizing success and then sheepishly suggests maybe he shouldn’t have been able to make or vastly increase his personal fortune.

They all want to be president. But they all need to make a better case for why they want to be president.