National elections tell us as much about ourselves as a nation as they do about the candidates. This election seems to be telling us two things, at least in foreign affairs. First, if we like someone, we forgive failures. Second, our feelings about a leader are based more on what the leader says than does.
Were there a different president today, the hue and cry about certain of the foreign-affairs disasters of this administration would be deafening.
Take the critical area of the Middle East as an example. It is not only that serious miscalculations about the political forces of the region led us into the quagmire of a shattered Lebanon or that 241 marines were killed or that our embassies have been twice bombed. Never since World War II have we had as little influence over events in that strategic area as today.
Syria dominates Lebanon. The Soviets are moving to become arms suppliers to moderate Arab states, Jordan and Kuwait. Acts of terrorism dramatically reflect a deep undercurrent of resentment toward our policies.
That there has been virtually no movement on serious issues between us and the Soviet Union is another example of what many would regard as a foreign-policy failure. Much of the fault lies with Moscow. Yet it seems clear from the writings of many expert observers that this administration has sought to avoid, rather than promote, serious negotiations with our principal adversary.
Certain aspects of the administration's policies in Central America have, undoubtedly, been successful, yet actions of the CIA in mining harbors and in encouraging guerrilla warfare have been an embarrassment to the US.
There have been positive results in the successful deployment of missiles to Europe, in relations generally with Asia, and in belated actions on the world debt crisis. But the serious setbacks to our interests in key areas of the world would, in other elections, have been politically exploited effectively to discredit an incumbent.
Jimmy Carter engineered the remarkable agreement at Camp David, negotiated seriously with the Soviet Union, gave us breathing room in Latin America through the Panama Canal treaties, and worked out the safe release of 52 hostages. Yet, he was vilified, even for positive acts, and his mistakes were magnified.
With Ronald Reagan, the majority of Americans do not seem to care what happens. Why?
It is true that the economy has improved, that people feel better off. Even so, many who support him question his policies. But these doubts are overcome because voters like Ronald Reagan and feel that he likes America.
The red heart that permeates our bumper stickers and T-shirts symbolizes the importance of affection to the American people. We want to like and be liked. We do not want politicians who tell us harsh truths about ourselves and our country. We resent such criticism, and our resentment is politically fatal. Such a tendency to base our individual decisions on the amiability of a candidate is worrisome, if not dangerous, in a democracy.
The infatuation with the President's slogans of ''standing tall'' and ''being strong'' glosses over our serious problems. The victory of superior American forces over 600 paramilitary Cubans on Grenada is somehow accepted as a valid comparison to the problem of rescuing 52 hostages in a city of 12 million unfriendly inhabitants in Iran, several thousand miles farther away.
An amiable image, linked to patriotism and ideology, and less attentive to the details of issues, can polarize a nation. Those who question or do not support policies are branded as unpatriotic. The free debate that maintains a strong democracy is threatened by such polarization.
Ronald Reagan clearly believes strongly in democracy, yet he leads by image and slogans. Images and slogans have been at the heart of political movements that, in other lands, have destroyed the democratic process. In this election more serious questions should have been raised about the sense of responsibility in our electorate and our true attachment to democracy when serious reverses in our relations with other parts of the world are ignored, largely because we like the incumbent.