Mitt Romney will be celebrated as the Republican candidate for the presidency in Tampa. The personalized system in America is, in many respects, superior to ours — but problematic nonetheless.
Ever heard of Reince Priebus? Or Debbie Wasserman Schultz? No? No matter, they don't play important roles. Not even in the United States, where they both live and work. They are, in fact, the heads of their respective political parties, Republican (Priebus) and Democratic (Schultz).
The fact that party leaders in the U.S. are nobodies illustrates the enormous differences between Europe and the U.S. In Europe, politicians are nothing without the party, while in the U.S. the candidate is everything and the party nothing. That's evident at the so-called Republican Party headquarters in Washington: The most lively things there besides the somewhat battered elephant carpets are the portraits of Reagan and George W. Bush. Were it not for the elegant woman ordered in especially because of the visitors — the building seems to otherwise have gone extinct — who reads from her script what a peripheral role the parties play, it's no understatement but rather an accurate description of reality.
What the Republicans have choreographed at their convention in Tampa this week is nothing more than a theatrical piece: We hold up on our shield the candidate who faithfully served as a functionary of the party all his life and the party now rallies behind the winner of the primary election — whether they wanted him or not.
The starkly personalized U.S. system is in many respects superior. First of all, it is much more dramatic. Yes, politics can be dynamic. In our country, the genus of politically speaking selfish voters isn't as widespread as the parties imagine it to be. The protracted primary election process in the United States can be fatiguing, but it ensures as thorough a revealing picture of the candidates as an x-ray machine. Finally, it assures a Congress that sees itself least as a mindless rubber stamp for the party in the White House. The U.S. Congress is a body of popular representatives that deserves the name. Nearly every president has had to learn that lesson.
On the down side, the system suffers a great deal of collateral damage: Well-organized factions like the tea party are able to get rid of targeted moderate candidates against the will and the philosophy of the party's mainstream. The 80-year-old Sen. Richard Lugar, respected on both sides of the elephant-donkey divide, was a recent victim of that. The concept of compromise is an endangered species. The tea party didn't approve of his moderate stances. He lost in the primary election. The personalization also allows issues to seep into a campaign that actually have no business being there. Naturally, no one should ever tie his dog to the roof of the car as Mitt Romney once did, but it says relatively little about his ability to get the American economy back on track.
Finally, their system of financing elections is questionable. Candidates are forced to spend an enormous amount of time and energy raising money; the campaigns degenerate into increasingly absurd material battles one Democrat described as TV-spot carpet bombing.
The judiciary opened the floodgates with the decision to allow unlimited donations by political action committees, the so-called super PACs. These are groups of supporters that have nothing at all to do with the candidate save for occasionally slinging mud at his opponent. Obama initially resisted that temptation, but his strategists quickly convinced him that when your opponent comes after you with an AK-47 you don't get very far with a squirt gun. Of course, he lost his Mr. Clean image; now Americans are treated to the spectacle of dirty campaigning from both sides.
That only damages the image of politics and, according to recent studies, doesn't pay off: A computer model showed that when the economic situation is bad — which it is — the winning candidate comes from the party out of power. That has held true over the past eight elections; they could have left the manure wagons at home.