What are the differences in how the three candidates who have survived their respective political parties’ nominating processes to this date would govern? That question is not as easily answered as we would think or even hope despite our observing over two years of campaigning by all of them. As I noted in an earlier column, campaigns and primaries test a candidates charm, stamina, money-raising ability and rhetorical powers, but not their leadership skills, judgment and coolness under fire.
Attempts to draw conclusions about what any of the candidate’s governing style and substance would be from their handling of the day to day events and issues which arise on the campaign trail inevitably fail the judicial “strict scrutiny test” or even the less rigorous “reasonable relation test.”
For example Senator Obama’s rhetorical handling of the controversy generated by some of his Pastor, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons for the last 20 years don’t tell us very much important about how Barrack Obama would govern if he is elected President of the United States. This is true regardless of whether you think Obama’s speech was “magnificent” — “an extremely important step forward in this country’s effort to transcend its racial history and divisions” or whether you believe it was essentially a “politically fine-tuned statement designed to mitigate the damage that the media’s sustained focus on Reverend Wright’s arguably incendiary and to some voters offensive rhetoric, and Senator Obama’s concurrent twenty year personal and spiritual relationship with him while he was preaching using these “fighting words” or “inspirational words.” What you think will obviously depend on your historical perspective and perhaps your racial and ethnic background and your age.
What it does do is focus our attention on the indisputable fact that we humans fact that we humans, including politicians are all more complicated than either our admirers or detractors want to admit and that that “inconvenient truth” sometimes gets in the way of staying on message as well as acknowledging reality in the day to day rough and tumble of a political campaign. The truth here is that all of the descriptions of Senator Obama’s speech as well as his actions over his adult lifetime were and are like most of us, including Reverend Wright motivated by a variety of historical, biological, psychological, environmental forces and circumstance. It is not late-breaking news that some of these factors and circumstances can be controlled and some cannot.
Likewise Senator Clinton’s recent “gaffes” describing her landing in Bosnia in terms more violent colorful and dramatic than it was as well as her “obstinence” in remaining in the race for President do not tell us much about how she would govern in style or substance as President of the United States. There are obviously those in the opposition camps who would like to draw profound conclusions from what they view as in the first instance as “bizarre behavior” and in the second instance “selfishness,” i.e. caring more about the her personal ambition than the party. But her explanation for the first event which is “inaccurate memory” and “lack of sleep” ought to be given credence in the absence of clinical evidence which would cast doubt upon it. With respect to her determination to remain the race until all the primary voters have spoken (including Florida and Michigan), even Senator Obama concedes that it is her right and not inappropriate under the rules and the deadlines established by the Democratic National Committee. Furthermore it is noteworthy that Senator Obama, personally is not among those verbally attempting “to pressure her out” although he does not appear to have persuaded his own campaign staff and surrogates to follow his lead. He would be wise to do so if his campaign’s basic message that his “Words Do Matter” message is not to be downsized in the face of at best conflicting and confusing messages from his staff and surrogates. These messages were recently characterized by New York Times Op Ed Columnist Maureen Dowd, exaggerating and paraphrasing from the famous scene of the “Wizard of Oz” in which the Wicked Witch warns the heroin, “Surrender Already Dorothy.”
Senator McCain may well present the most interesting as well as the most difficult candidate to try to analyze how he would govern in style and substance. This difficulty is despite or perhaps because of his comparatively much longer career in public service. That career however has been as a soldier and as a legislator in the Congress of the United States as a U.S. Senator and as a now two-time Presidential Candidate. That history demonstrates some relevant personality traits from which both positive and negative inferences can rationally be drawn about how he would govern. My problem is as I observe him every time I think I can draw conclusions about how he would govern which I can make stick analytically, he announces a position which contradicts or at least muddles my previous impression.
I recognize that Senator McCain is doing this now because he has the luxury of having wrapped up the Republican Party Nomination and can use this time (which the Democrats are giving him) to “reintroduce” himself to the nation’s voters notwithstanding his long history and exposure to them. I also understand that while we observe he’s doing that, he is clearly moving to the political center and away from George W. Bush, which is necessary for him to be competitive in the General Election. This accounts for much of the difficulty in predicting how he would govern.
A recent book by Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, father and son journalists entitled “Reagan’s Disciple – George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest For A Presidential Legacy,” illustrates how difficult it is to discern how a politician will govern or even how he has governed from his campaign rhetoric and public history. As Dick Polman, National Political Columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer points out in reviewing the Cannons’ book, “Reagan the pragmatic man does not square with Reagan the ideologically conservative myth.”
To illustrate their point the Cannons cite “persuasive evidence to arrive at “judicious findings” based on the weight of this evidence” that “Reagan wouldn’t have gone into Iraq.” Reagan “realized that he did not have (nor did he seek) a free hand in waging war” He was “cautious about such involvements” and “believed that modern wars could not be successfully fought without popular domestic support, the requisite troop strength, and a feasible exit strategy.” “He was a reluctant warrior who much preferred negotiation to counting the dead.”
The Cannons also persuasively write that Reagan “was also far more schooled than Bush in the art of compromise and the careful expenditure of political capital.” To illustrate this point they contrast Reagan’s “deal” with Tip O’Neill and Congressional Democrats in 1983 to keep the Social Security program solvent. This is contrasted with Bush’s exhausting much of his political capital in 2005 stumping in vain for Social Security privatization, a concept that grew more unpopular the more he talked about it.
Neither of these positions (on the War and the privatization of Social Security) by Bush is a surprise to the Cannons in light of Bush’s and lately his Vice President’s loud pronouncements that he “pays no attention to polls.” However the Cannons note that notwithstanding his position and image as the “icon of modern conservatism,” “that is not how Reagan governed.” Reagan was “guided by his foundational convictions – lower taxes, strong defense, but was attuned to public sentiment and recalibrated when necessary.” As Reagan’s last Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein told Carl Cannon: “You can’t govern by polls, but you need the American people with you to govern effectively.” In addition the Cannons note that Reagan employed “a diverse and sometimes quarrelsome circle of advisors — people like Duberstein, Howard Baker, George Schultz, and Colin Powell, high caliber people, who were practical and realistic.” This is contrasted with Bush’s inner circle which has never been known for its wide range of opinion nor encouraged to express it. In fact, Reagan in the words of Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, “listened to people who were telling him what was wrong.” George W.
Bush, as the Cannons note, has been less tolerant of dissent and more significantly to the detriment of his legacy has “refused to learn from his mistakes.”
What does this portend for predicting the governance style and substance of Senators John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Barrack Obama? What lessons are to be learned from the similar governing styles of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan whose philosophical legacies are bipolar but whose style and success were described by Barrack Obama as “transformative?” I’ll continue to try based on the limited information revealed by the candidates to answer those questions in the next few columns.