Where Are The Good Candidates For President?

I am not among those who routinely dismiss President Obama’s presidency as a failure, nor do I count myself among those who see him as an enemy of Israel. I regard him as a good and honorable man- a thoughtful man- who was swept into office on the wings of his great oratorical skills. In so doing, he carried on his back the desperate hopes of an American people, fearful that the economic meltdown of 2008 was destroying the way of life that they had come to know, and depend on.

I don’t know what man or woman would have been able to save us from the disastrous gridlock that has paralyzed Washington since then, and/or reinvest America’s foreign policy with prestige and power. Really- the president inherited two inadequately financed, protracted and widely unpopular wars, and an economy in tatters. What did we realistically expect him to be able to do? The poetry with which he campaigned turned into much more pedestrian prose when the full weight of his responsibilities became clear, and a daily preoccupation. I doubt that he ever had a realistic chance of being successful.

But, that said, one could also make a more than reasonable case that President Obama’s presidency thus far has been disappointing. I take no joy in admitting that. I voted for him, and hoped, as so many of us did, that his ascendancy to that high office was a harbinger of better and brighter times to come for America.

But America today is a largely dispirited country, severely divided, incapable of governing itself, and not at all optimistic about the future. President Obama’s single greatest legislative achievement, his overhaul of the health care system, is still subject to judicial reviews, and not universally popular with the people it is intended to serve. Unemployment rates stay stubbornly high, and the economy remains in recession. America’s prestige and influence on the international scene are lower than they have been in a very long time.

In short, as we approach a presidential electoral season, many Americans find themselves looking for a reasonable alternative. Or, to put it another way, were there to be a creditable alternative to President Obama, I think it’s reasonable to say that many Americans would at least consider it. All logic would seem to indicate that this is a propitious moment for the Republicans to put their proverbial best foot forward, and serve up a serious and creditable challenge to the President in the upcoming election.

But what do we get instead? With one or two notable exceptions, what we have been offered is a collection of strange, even odd characters. Let’s assume for the moment that Mitt Romney is a credible candidate, and Jon Huntsman is as well. It is significant that Huntsman is largely being ignored by Republican voters because he’s too much of a centrist, and most Republicans seem to be searching for “anyone but Romney,” who also presents as someone with serious governing experience and an awareness of the complexity of issues. The Tea Party’s influence on Republican politics has been so powerful that anyone not on the edge of the right-wing precipice is almost automatically disqualified, even if the alternative is electoral suicide.

So who are Republican voters left with? Michelle Bachmann, whom I think we could all agree is not Presidential material; Ron Paul, who is somewhere out in deep left field on most issues dear to voters; Newt Gingrich, who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the federal government after shutting it down during the Clinton administration, and says more bizarre things every day; Herman Cain, who has- shall we say- a problematic relationship with women…. Is this all there is? Are there no better people out there who might be able to lead this country, or at least to offer a viable alternative to what we have now?

I suppose it’s true that the near total violation of privacy that a candidacy for the presidency represents in the twenty-first century makes my question just a little self-serving. After all, in a time when everyone’s cell phone comes equipped for video, and any misstep or misquote that one makes is likely to wind up on YouTube within a few minutes, who would want to subject him/herself to that kind of scrutiny? Few among us are without those aspects of our private and family lives that we would hardly want plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

But I am also reminded of the powerful Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin that speaks to the issue of being a witness in a capital case, where one’s testimony can literally impact whether or not the accused will live or die. The Mishnah points out the possibility that the potential witness might be moved to say Mah Lanu Ul’tzarah Hazot? Roughly translated, “Who needs this?” Why would I want to get involved?

The Mishnah responds that, in truth, justice needs it. If innocent, the accused needs for a witness to corroborate his innocence. If guilty, the Beit Din needs the witness to attest to that, as well. Society as a whole can’t afford to provide a potential witness with the luxury of not getting involved.

I agree wholeheartedly. I think that in these fateful times, the lesson of Mishnah Sanhedrin is one that we would do well to consider seriously. We desperately need good, effective, honest, and principled leadership by men and women who are willing to give of themselves in service of their country. It is insulting to suggest to the American people that these are the best alternatives available. How can someone like Michelle Bachman even be considered for the presidency? And beyond his problems with women, why should Herman Cain be a serious candidate? Because he’s charming, and good with words? Because he ran a successful pizza company? Does it not matter that he couldn’t remember President Obama’s policy in Libya?

America deserves better than this motley collection. And President Obama, to his credit, is a more credible and serious candidate, even on his worst day, than any of these people. Why can’t the Republicans see this? The door is so wide open for them; at this rate, it will just slam in their faces.
About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.