Commentary: Looking for the perfect president

I waited lackadaisically through the fall for that bolt of lightening that would make it clear which Republican candidate was best suited for the presidency. But the days between now and Jan. 21 began to dwindle, and still nothing more than a general feeling.

So when the wonkish Project Vote Smart unveiled its “VoteEasy” program, a quiz that uses the voters’ positions to reveal their perfect candidate matches, I rushed over to the site to take a look.

I started with foreign policy, the one clearly legitimate topic for presidential debate. Alas, the scant two questions on the subject offered virtually no distinctions, either among Republicans or between the Republicans and President Obama: With the exception of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, everybody supports “targeting suspected terrorists outside of official theaters of conflict,” and all but Mr. Paul and Jon Huntsman support U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan. I didn’t need a test to tell me I don’t like Mr. Paul, and Mr. Huntsman’s position on Afghanistan — which he explains quite respectably, if unconvincingly — doesn’t diminish my admiration for him.

All the candidates except Mr. Paul agree with me that we should offer business tax incentives and spend money on infrastructure in order to promote economic growth, but only Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Obama support “federal spending as a means of promoting economic growth” — which made me wonder what the other candidates think business tax incentives and infrastructure spending are.

I tend to like an “all of the above” approach to the budget, but when I said yes to balancing it in general and to all the specific options — reducing spending on defense, Medicare and Medicaid and raising taxes — Mr. Paul came out on top, even though I know enough to know that we don’t agree about much of anything. He was tied with Buddy Roemer, who isn’t on the ballot in South Carolina, although everybody else was so close behind as to make this series of questions meaningless as well.

There was only one education question: Do I support requiring states to implement education reforms in order to qualify for competitive federal grants? Well, yes, and Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama agree with me 100 percent. Mr. Huntsman agrees with me 50 percent, which means he was graded for the sort of nuanced answer that interests none of the other candidates, but which I’d like to give: Of course people who receive tax dollars should have to meet some basic standards, but the standards ought to be smart ones, and the federal government should be less involved in public education.

Ditto Social Security, with its one question: “Do you support allowing individuals to divert part of their Social Security earnings into personal retirement accounts?” If I say no, the president and I are in agreement; if I say yes, I’m in agreement with all the Republicans except Mr. Huntsman, who scores 50 percent either way I go, which again suggests that he shares my opinion: “Well, it depends on the details .”

If I oppose “reducing restrictions on offshore energy production,” the president and I are of one mind; if I support it, then I match up with all the Republicans — except Mr. Huntsman. Again we’re a 50 percent match either way I go, suggesting — again — that he’s actually my perfect match: someone who understands that the world is gray, and isn’t willing to pretend otherwise to pacify voters at the extremes.

But that fact, like the final scores (a 65 percent match with Mr. Huntsman, 52 percent with Mr. Gingrich, and in the 40s with everyone else except Mr. Paul), highlights the problem that has been growing, in both parties, with each new election: The Republican who appeals best to independent voters such as myself — and who therefore has the best hope of winning the general election — isn’t getting any traction with primary voters.

I don’t believe in writing off serious candidates who seem to have no chance of winning — particularly in a year like this, when candidates can go from obscurity to frontrunner at the toss of a pizza — but I think a long shot has to be head and shoulders above everyone else, not just a little better.

The VoteEasy numbers for Mr. Huntsman could be read either way. So I tried out SelectSmart, a buffet of quizzes whose “most recent ratings” on the day I visited ranged from “choosing your dog” and “Which Harry Potter character are you like?” to “What dress are you?” and “sexual positions recommender.” The Presidential Candidate Selector gave me 20 questions; for more than half, I couldn’t care less (“What would be your ideal candidate’s position on marijuana laws?”) or couldn’t force myself to pick any of the choices offered (Would my ideal candidate support “the pro-business positions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” or the “pro-labor positions of the AFL-CIO?” Hmmm; I’ll take “neither.”)

SelectSmart told me that Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney and I agreed 55 percent of the time. When I forced myself to choose the least gag-inducing answers to a few more questions, Mr. Romney’s numbers climbed to 70 percent and Mr. Gingrich’s to 63 percent; Mr. Huntsman’s match dropped to 54 percent, which actually suggested he was an even better match, because such tiny changes reflected the fact that his positions are as nuanced as my feelings.

These and other quizzes have lots of shortcomings beyond the absence of gray. They don’t measure a candidate’s passion or integrity or sincerity, for instance. But stripping away the passion makes it easier to see the distinctions (or lack thereof) between the candidates’ actual positions on issues that matter to you, and if you play around with them a little bit, you can get a pretty good feel for which candidates are ideological doctrinaires and which are pragmatists, which are saying whatever voters seem to want to hear and which are less compromised. If nothing else, they can either confirm your inclinations or give you some second thoughts — which we might be better off having more of.

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