This the the kind of question that I hear from the backseat of the car a lot these days. It would be easy to let slip a short but pointed diatribe on the fallacy of supply-side economics and the persistent American fantasy of getting rich through tax cuts but there’s no point. The person I’m explaining this election to is only four years old.
My son has been able to identify President Obama since he was about two years old. A DC-born child of Democrats, he learned who our President is by way of a life sized cut-out of Obama in the window of a store in Union Station. He’ll tell you that the White House is Obama’s house and he once asked if a local newscaster on TV was Obama. I take it as a positive sign of the times that my son sees a 40-something African-American man wearing a suit on television and his first thought is that he belongs in the Oval Office.
Now that we’re deep into election season, my little boy has been forced to endure many of the same virulent political ads as the rest of us. They were on during the Olympics all summer and they run almost non-stop during the morning news program I like to turn on. Just by virtue of being in the room with the TV on, my son has gotten an education into the scare tactics popular among third-party political actors. Luckily, he’s too young to understand the falsehoods put forth by the Super PACs (::ahem:: The Affordable Care Act is NOT “government run health care.”) But he does understand the horse race aspect of a political contest and he wants to know who is going to win and why.
What do I tell him? The nuances of party platforms and governance records are more than he can understand. The Laffer Curve means nothing to him nor has he ever heard of Keynes and the economics of demand. He doesn’t know the middle class from mommy-and-me music class. He doesn’t understand why access to health care for all is a good thing since health care means shots to him and he HATES shots. He would just be confused if I told him that I fear for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s longevity if we were in a position of having a conservative president appointing her replacement. And it goes without saying that I can’t talk about Paul Ryan and use words like “vouchercare” or “douchebag.”
So what’s left? What can I tell a curious little boy about democracy and the process of peaceful transfer of power? How can I share with him the amazing parts of our election process without getting bogged down in the minutiae of attack politics?
What I’ve told him is that being president is about helping people. I tell him Mr. Obama wants to do things like give food and housing to people who need them and Mr. Romney wants to give people more money. I’ve told him that Mr. Obama thinks helping people is the right thing to do and Mr. Romney thinks money is more important. I’ve told him that Daddy and I agree with Mr. Obama but other people agree with Mr. Romney and soon, all the grown-ups will vote for the one they agree with and the candidate with the most votes will get to be president.
And yes, I always call them Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney when I talk about them. And I never say one is right or one is wrong. I just say I agree with Mr. Obama. I also say that if Mr. Romney wins the election, it will be OK. We’ll just see how he does and decide in a few years if he gets to keep being president or not.
Someday I’ll explain the ideology. Someday I’ll explain the full rights of citizenship, free speech, and political advocacy. Someday my boy will make a choice about which party he supports and why. For now though, we deal in the most simple elements: a decision about who will do the best job of helping people. Because, at its heart, that’s what the presidency should really be about.