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Politics & Current Affairs

How to Pick a President

In his post at The Stone on Wednesday, Gary Gutting urges us to recalibrate our assessments of presidential candidates in two ways: (1) by putting less stock in candidates’ successes or failures and (2) by voting for a party, not a person.

The first suggestion makes a lot of sense. The second, I think, does not.

Why Fails Aren’t a Big Deal

“Failure,” Gutting writes, “does not prove incompetence.” By the same token, a success like taking out Osama bin Laden should not steer us too sharply toward the president who was at the helm at the time; the operation could have easily gone the other way. Whether due to divine fate or simple bad luck, things sometimes just turn out badly. Here is how Gutting puts it, turning back to Sophocles:

Consider Oedipus. As classical scholars like Bernard Knox have noted, he is the model of the Athenian statesman described in Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration. Nonetheless, Oedipus comes to a horrific end, blind and exiled. Why? Not because he is incompetent. He is remarkably smart, persistent and courageous. But he is a victim of fate.

When things just go badly, our leaders do not deserve to be condemned, and, Gutting argues, should not lose our votes. Who cannot sympathize with Oedipus, fated to kill his father and marry his mother, unwittingly and tragically bringing blight upon his city of Thebes? Less dramatically, think of President Obama’s argument that he inherited a terrible economy and massive budget deficits and has spent four years clawing out of the hole. Or consider Mitt Romney’s excuse that he was speaking “inelegantly” when said that 47 percent of the American people are dependent on the government.

Gutting is right to note that character is durable: the vagaries of experience should neither sully nor exalt a candidate in our eyes. I’m right with him when he observes that “it’s a mistake to identify competence with success or to see occasional lapses as disqualifying.” But the key qualifier here is “occasional.” Obama’s sleepy performance in the first debate was excusable because it was a one-off; the president had a bad night, perhaps because he wasn’t prepared to debate a shape shifter. One weak performance, by itself, shouldn’t worry voters. But if a candidate has a consistently strong or a pervasively weak track record, there is no sense in chalking those results up to chance.

Machiavelli is useful here. A leader’s virtue, he wrote in chapter 25 of “The Prince,” consists in having the foresight to plan for emergencies, steer the ship clear of disasters (when possible) and handle the trying times when they inevitably arrive. The buck does eventually have to stop with somebody.

Why Not to Vote Party Line

After hailing the competence and character of Oedipus, Gutting’s final point comes as a surprise. Reversing course, he tells us that individual virtue shouldn’t matter to us a whit when choosing candidates:

The deeper mistake, however, is to believe that the competence and character of the candidates should ordinarily be major issues in a presidential election. Disqualifying incompetence and character defects are, under our present system, unlikely. Anyone who has been able to win a national party’s nomination is likely to have a reasonable level of competence for governing (or, at least, an ability to choose and listen to advisers who have such competence).  And the degree of scrutiny candidates undergo would have likely exposed any serious character flaws.

Several problems here, aside from the tension with Gutting’s first argument. There are plenty of examples of candidates whose defects fully present themselves after warning signs come on the campaign trail: Jimmy Carter’s pusillanimous leadership style, Bill Clinton’s penchant for interns and prevarication, George W. Bush’s rash and simplistic foreign policy principles. And there is no reason to believe that winning a party’s nomination bespeaks an individual’s competence to govern: campaigning draws on quite different skills.  

Nevertheless, Gutting advises us to “vote for the party rather than the person”:

[S]ince there’s no good way to predict who will turn out to be the “better man” — that’s mostly a matter of luck — the thing to do is vote for the party you think should be in power for the next four years.

This conclusion, in my view, is fundamentally mistaken. In voting for the candidate whose party platform is closest to our own policy preferences, we risk putting someone in office who will break campaign promises, who will drift left or right of us, who will promise quick action on immigration reform or no new taxes, say, and not follow through. And even if a president pursues exactly the platform he ran on, there is no telling how much success he will have. Under circumstances of divided government, and with the increased partisan rancor of recent years, the safer bet is that little of a president’s agenda will see the light of day.

As Daniel Drezner argued in the New York Times last month, presidents have much more latitude when it comes to foreign policy:

If presidents seem to be ever more constrained in their domestic policy making, in foreign affairs the executive branch has far more leeway. Sure, Congress has to approve treaties and budgets, but they are reluctant to challenge the executive branch on most national security matters. The Bush administration was able to implement the Iraq surge despite skeptical majorities in both houses of Congress. The Obama administration authorized the use of force in Libya without even notifying Congress. Neither policy was terribly popular with the American people, yet both presidents were able to do what they wanted.

So it makes more sense to vote for a president you are comfortable imagining as representative of the nation and in the role of Commander-in-Chief rather than finding the ideal Legislator-in-Chief who comes from a party that matches your ideology. A president will have much more influence on foreign affairs, and given the uncertainties and unpredictable nature of international politics, party platforms here are of very limited utility in forecasting how (or what) a president will do.

In short, voters would be wise to take Gutting’s advice. Just not all of it.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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