From The Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012 AHA Roundtable, a Perspectives Online extra from the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

"I Know What It Takes": The Uncertain Political Outcomes of Political Certitude

Edward J. Blum, October 2012

Edward J. BlumAfter four years of terrible war, northern Americans in March of 1865 looked to President Abraham Lincoln to set an agenda not only for his next four years in the White House, but also for the postwar nation. They expected a political speech; they got a pastoral sermon. And not just any kind of sermon, but a sermon of uncertainty. Of the origins of the war, Lincoln used the passive voice. “All knew” that the slavery issue “was somehow the cause of the war.” Why was the struggle so long and terrible? Lincoln did not know and acknowledged the incomprehensibility of God: “The Almighty has his own purposes “Although historians and theologians have expressed admiration for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, especially with the rise of Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethical theology of Christian realism, many of Lincoln’s age found the lack of clarity troubling.  The New York World, for instance, indicted Lincoln for taking “refuge in piety,” rather than in offering concrete direction.

Although Governor Mitt Romney invoked God in his second presidential debate with President Barack Obama (as Romney did in the first debate as well), the governor’s overall approach could not have been further from Lincoln’s. Within the first five minutes and then repeatedly throughout the debate, Governor Romney used the phrase “I know what it takes.” Whether it was the budget, the deficit, education, or health care, Romney assured the audience, “I know.” At my count, he used the phrase seven times.

Unlike Mitt Romney, President Obama often positions himself in line with ambiguity. When speaking of religious faith, for example, Obama has written that he is a “Christian and skeptic.” Even when his daughters asked him what happens to people when they die, he wondered if he should have answered truthfully, which meant admitting what he did not feel he know. “I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang.”

The politics of certitude have their advantages and disadvantages. They can sound strong and assertive. James Monroe gave his name to an international directive the United States could not enforce, but the “Monroe Doctrine” inspired countless Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, to believe in the nation’s hemispheric might. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and demanded that Mr. Gorbachev “tear down this wall” and in so doing made himself a hero of the Cold War, especially since both the Berlin Wall and the USSR fell.

But if promises are broken or assertive claims fail to materialize, they can backfire badly. Herbert Hoover declared in 1928 that the nation was nearing “a final triumph over poverty.” He was wrong, depressingly so. Sixty years later, George H. W. Bush told Republicans and Americans to “read my lips: no new taxes.” Then in 1990, to compromise with Congressional Democrats, Bush agreed to some tax increases. For it, he became the butt of Saturday Night Live spoofs and Bill Clinton (with the help of Ross Perot) defeated Bush with a new political certitude: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Mitt Romney’s repeated claims to “know” can be evaluated historically from numerous directions. One can hear within them the struggles between Modernists and Fundamentalists of the early twentieth century who battled over what they knew when it came to God, the Bible, and evolution. Romney’s “know” statements can also be placed within the contours of modernism’s and postmodernism’s questions of what is known or even, once again to quote Bill Clinton, “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The claim “to know” is a powerful one, and Romney was certainly playing it as part of his plan.

Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University and the author of several books on race and religion. His most recent is co-authored with Paul Harvey of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and titled The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race (Chapel Hill, 2012).