I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump.  I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.

My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.

This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.  Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms.  By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”.  He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.

This was part of Nixon’s plan.  It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968.  It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.

When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump.  He’d become a laughingstock.

Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.

I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.

Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power.  But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.

The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it.  The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.


President Obama–the same President Obama who is allegedly engaging in “class warfare” and supposedly out to tax “job-creators”–has announced a plan to “lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%.” Read all about it.

One thing to keep in mind before arguing about what this plan means is that it is a plan that is being proposed. Meaning that if anything ever does come of it, it will probably be completely different than it is now, once all the different interests have hashed it out.

But, just for fun, let’s talk about it. Apparently, idea is that in exchange for these tax cuts, “corporations would have to give up dozens of loopholes and subsidies that they now enjoy. Corporations with overseas operations would also face a minimum tax on their foreign earnings“, according to the Associated Press article.

Okay, but here’s the thing: ultimately whether it comes under the label “taxes”, “loopholes”, “subsidies” or what have you, there is ultimately only one question: do the corporations get more money as a result of this plan or less? I’d like to see some sort of estimated balance sheet that gives some idea whether corporations, if treated as a monolith, win or lose from this plan. I won’t hold my breath, though, because it’s going to be virtually impossible to get good reporting on that.

More to the point, even if you somehow did find that out, we would then have to drill down into the details of which corporations will lose and which will win, and then try to figure out if they’re the right ones. Which is always a gamble, because it’s basically the same problem as trying to pick winners. And then of course, as the AP article points out it is unlikely that any of this will happen in an election year, and thus, even assuming Obama does get re-elected, it’s unknown what the Congress will look like next year.

This is why the idea of getting rid of the whole tax code appeals to people. It appealed to me, in my Libertarian days, until I realized that since taxes in some form are necessary to run a government, there would have to be new one installed, and in the course of installing it, all the same problems would immediately recur.

While we’re on the topic, why is Obama doing this, if such a class-warrior he is? Is he just as beholden to the corporate interests as his Republican opponents. I don’t know, but I know some Democrats who are going to think so.

Long-time readers might remember when I asked the question “was Theodore Roosevelt a socialist?” I said at the time that I thought T.R. “was merely a pragmatist, and found that the easiest way to thwart radical socialism was to allow for moderate socialism.” The same argument could apply here, if we ask “is Obama out to aid the corporations?”* Well, yes, but not as much as the Republicans are. The easiest way to thwart radical corporate tax cuts is to allow for moderate ones.


*I did not ask “is Obama a Capitalist?” for reasons which are long and complicated. The short version is that, in my view, very few people can actually be said to be “capitalist”, as almost all countries, governments, and corporations engage in some scheme of artificial wealth redistribution, which, according to some Republicans makes them “socialist”. By their definition, almost everything short of anarchy is socialism. Also, of course, helping corporations isn’t quite the same as being a capitalist, but it’s not being a socialist either.