APS News

Inside the Beltway

Physicists Feel the Pain, Too

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Get me some Ambien or Lunesta! I’m exhausted, but the racket won’t stop. No, I don’t mean my upstairs neighbor, who is a considerate, hardworking member of Congress–definitely not the partying type. It’s the endless presidential campaign, which on the Democratic side promises to continue in primary mode until the September convention, as I suggested almost a year ago.

For the 24-7 cable channels, the endless campaign provides them with a raison d’être. For weary me, it’s becoming a mind-numbing din.

True, Barack Obama has inspired tens of thousands of young people to take voting seriously. And the idea of having a new occupant of the White House who is a woman, a black–at least on his father’s side–or a septuagenarian is certainly going to represent a substantial change from the status quo.

But what have we really learned about the potential new occupant over the last year, other than their individual claims to be agents of change? Hillary Clinton wants to provide healthcare for the 45 or so million Americans who currently go without, and she wants to give our veterans their just due when they come home. John McCain wants to clean up the swamp of corruption, eliminate torture and keep American troops in Iraq for a century. And Barack Obama wants to do away with partisanship, bring our troops home, and fill us with hope.

If you go to the campaign websites, you find a lot more, but since the candidates rarely talk about the issues, we’re pretty much left with the roar of emotion generators. And for good reason: political campaigns are all about arousing feelings, as I noted a few months ago.

Still, I’m getting tired of having my passions juiced. I’m tired of watching Obama play cheerleader to the chant of “Yes, we can!” I’m tired of watching Clinton clap her hands in time to “Yes, we will!” And when John McCain starts every sentence with “My friends,” I’m wondering why he doesn’t think some people out there might be his enemies.

There are plenty of problems facing our country that demand attention: the crumbling infrastructure, the sinking dollar, the liquidity crisis, the mortgage implosion, climate change, energy security, the national debt, sagging innovation, lagging competitiveness, Medicare shortfalls, a Social Security Trust Fund that has no balance, soaring health care costs, and an education system that doesn’t deliver.

Won’t somebody please address them beyond serving up the usual banalities? I don’t expect the candidates to have foolproof solutions, but wouldn’t it be nice if they treated us like adults once in a while and provided some thoughtful ideas?

The paucity of policy content in the presidential campaigns was the subject of discussion at a dinner at a friend’s Capitol Hill house the other night. There were twenty members of the House of Representatives present along with Emory University neuro-psychologist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain. One member asked Westen whether this year’s presidential campaign engines were simply running on emotional gas–my turn of phrase, not hers.

Every successful campaign in recent memory has, Westen replied.  In fact, he said, one of Hillary Clinton’s problems is that she doesn’t have the extraordinary ability to appeal to people’s hearts and guts the way Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy did in their successful runs for the White House. Duds who didn’t have the emotional mojo? Think John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, or Al Gore before his Hollywood makeover.

As I’ve written before, I think Westen and his Republican counterpart, Frank Luntz, pretty much have the political magic correct. And apparently the current crop of candidates thinks so, too.

So when the science community clamors for a “Science Debate,” don’t hold your breath waiting. If there’s anything further away from emotion than science, I haven’t run into it.

Nonetheless, with significant parts of the research enterprise reeling from the effects of the Fiscal Year 2008 budget, it would be comforting to the science community–especially to the recently unemployed or furloughed–to hear at least one of the candidates say, “I feel your pain.” Science may be devoid of emotional substance, but scientists aren’t.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff