Watching the debate on Wednesday, I truly can’t imagine Barack Obama having come off as the more likeable candidate. Continuously glancing downwards, perhaps looking for inspiration (I glance upwards, myself), and often displaying an angry countenance, he seemed stiff, detached and petulant; in contrast, Mitt Romney appeared energetic, nimble-minded, affable, engaged and engaging. It was the Mind vs. the Unkind.
Nonetheless, the left is still pushing the narrative of Mitt the Mean. CNN disseminated a poll showing that only 46 percent of debate viewers thought Romney was likeable (of course, we have to consider the source), and the Democrat National Committee just cooked up an ad—showing Romney interrupting moderator Jim Lehrer—whose thrust is that the governor was pushy and bullying. Let’s understand, however, that as it was Romney was given 4 fewer minutes to speak; if he’d been a “nicer” guy, it would have been 10. This brings me to my point.
Years ago a reader emailed me regarding a piece I wrote on Obama’s predecessor and called him “George the Nice.” It was not a compliment. The idea was that President Bush often seemed more interested in getting along than getting things right. And whether you agree with this assessment or not isn’t the issue. It is, rather, as I recently asked, what’s “like” got to do with it?
Oh, I understand that “likeability” influences voters. This and the fact that polls have shown it to be Obama’s strong suit with the electorate is, of course, why the left wants to perpetuate their Mean Mitt myth. And while I find Obama as likeable as poison ivy in private areas, let’s for argument’s sake assume that he truly is the more likeable candidate. Is this meaningful in a leader? Could it even be a warning sign?
This point can be illustrated with a tale of two men, both colleagues of mine at a former place of employment. One was a charming fellow who specialized in the schmooze; the other was a curmudgeonly, stone-faced and sometimes gruff WWII veteran. Now, it’s obvious who was more likeable, and I cottoned to the charmer myself. If you got to know them, however, you learned that Mr. Charm was a Machiavellian operator with a Clintonesque attitude toward truth, while the veteran was a trustworthy, upstanding straight-talker.
Knowing this, how could I like the charmer? Well, what we like is determined by emotion or taste, which generally has little acquaintance with reason. A person may like tobacco more than vegetables or chocolate more than exercise, but few would call them wiser choices. In the same vein, I never would have chosen the charmer if he had been running for office against the curmudgeon. For this is where we must lead with our heads, not our hearts, resist the urge to kowtow to our likes and not eat, smoke or vote ourselves to death.
In fact, it’s usually unwise to choose anyone based solely on likeability, as there’s little correlation between extreme likeability, and virtue and competence (and some virtue, such as conscientiousness, is necessary for competence). One reason for this is that since all three qualities are relatively rare, they aren’t often possessed by the same person. As an example, I know a soft-spoken, affable fellow who most anyone would call a nice guy, but he couldn’t figure out whether the kind of infanticide prohibited by BAIPA legislation was okay or not. As for competence, if you’d chosen a general based on likeability, would you have picked George Patton?
And if you’d chosen a computer developer on likeability, Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been your man. So is it wise to choose a president based on likeability? If a man can’t even stand up to an ossified debate moderator, how will he fare locking horns with the Russians or Chinese? In fact, we could use a variation on a famous saying here and wonder if the road to Hell isn’t paved by nice guys.
More ominously, likeability can actually be a red flag. Why? Because projecting it is the specialty of the con man. He will tell you exactly what you want to hear; the good person tells you what you need to hear. The con man will peddle seductive little lies to appear charming—at least until he doesn’t need you anymore.
Of course, a good person’s likeability is also situational, but for a different reason. You may generally be likeable, but will you seem so violently wielding a sword on a battlefield? Similarly, fighting on the moral/cultural battlefield can be messy business; thus, if you’re ever and always likeable amidst this fray, you’re doing it wrong. Just consider Ronald Reagan, a man so affable he won even the hearts of many ‘80s Democrats. How likeable did he seem at the 1980 Nashua, New Hampshire, primary debate when he angrily shouted, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green”? He was playing hardball, not Mr. Nice Guy, but it was a defining moment that evoked cheers and helped pave his way to the presidency.
So what’s “like” got to do with it? It should be no more relevant to choosing a president than to choosing runners for the Olympic team. Unfortunately, though, man’s nature won’t change; just as we elevate intellectuals over wise men, many will continue to choose likeability over virtue. It’s why our government and culture become less likeable all the time.
Selwyn Duke is a political commentator an analyst. See his website here.