Michael Ignatieff’s ideas on “political judgment , which I introduced in my last column , should inform our observations , opinions and perhaps even our decisions about which politician to vote for in Maryland’s February 12, 2008 primaries. As I mentioned in that last column, Michael Ignatieff is a former professor at Harvard and contributing writer for the New York Times, who is now a member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
As February 12, 2008 approaches we have two politicians in the Democratic Party to observe and ultimately choose from when we enter voting booth if we are registered Democrats. One promises “Change” and cites his ability to inspire heretofore antagonistic political forces to work together and previously irreconcilable ideas to blend with each other by the force of his calming personality and the “Hope” that is the inevitable product of his lofty rhetoric. The other campaigns on her “experience” and implicitly her ability to actually affect “Change,” based on “being ready to be president on day one.” The Change both promises, is at best undefined except that both clearly would “pull our combat troops out of Iraq quicker than any Republican and provide adequate health care for greater numbers of our citizens particularly children.
In the Republican Party there are also two major candidates. One essentially campaigns on his personality of being honest, traveling in his vehicle which is both rhetorically and on the ground known as the “Straight Talk Express.” He promises honesty, integrity, and a willingness to make tough and perhaps unpopular decisions including supporting an unpopular war and being honest about it with the people. His MBA opponent markets his positions based on what he perceives will sell the latest technique being that he is a “Change Agent” because he has served as an elected official in Washington D.C. and because his experience in the private sector will enable him to harness global economic forces and halt economic trends resulting from globalization which appear irreversible. What he would do and how he would do it remains unclear at best.
These four politicians are all at risk for the same reasons. As a very wise man whom was a mentor of mine and a successful manager of politicians and politics said of him and others on more than one occasion, “The danger with any politician is that he or she will start believing his or her own handlers, press releases and speeches.” This is another way of saying what Michael Ignatieff points out, which is, “Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.
Once again I submit that the key to doing that for a politician is putting the right people in the room with you and listening to them before you make important decisions. These should be wise men and women who will speak the truth to those in power and who are willing to admit their own and your past mistakes and counsel the leader they are advising to avoid repeating them. These are people who recognize that the way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world without preconception everyday and learn mostly from our mistakes what works and what doesn’t work while at the same time recognizing that even lengthy experience can fail us in life and politics. Again as Michael Ignatieff points out, “Experience can imprison decision makers in worn out solutions while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.”
A sense of reality however is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it might be. Again as Michael Ignatieff points out, “Like great artists great politicians see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities.” To bring the new into being however will clearly require more than inspiring rhetoric. If that was all it took we would be there already. There has been no shortage of speeches, some sending all of our hopes skyward from Barrack O’bama and others in this campaign season. Clearly those speeches have not and will not by themselves take this country where we want it to go as a society.
Now as Ignatieff points out “To bring the new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing of when to leap and when to remain still.” Bismarck famously remarked – “Political judgment is the ability to hear before anyone else the distant hoof beats of the horse of history.”
Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again, Fail better” captured an even clearer perspective on the inner obstinacy necessary to the political art. Churchill and DeGaulle kept faith with their own judgment even when elite opinion strongly believed them to be mistaken. Their willingness to wait for historical validation looks like greatness now.
Contrast that view with how you think history will view the current president and those supporters of the way he lead us into the War in Iraq and his conduct of that war ever since. Is he a great man awaiting history’s vindication or is he a stubborn man who had a charmed life surrounded by “Yes men and women” who can’t or won’t acknowledge and learn from their mistakes?” More important is he capable of asking himself that question.
In fact, as it turns out in politics, good judgment depends on being a critical judge of ones self. People with good judgment listen to warning bells within. Prudent leaders force themselves to listen equally to advocates and opponents of the course of action they are thinking of pursuing. They do not suppose that they know all they need to know and they do not suppose that good intentions will guarantee good results.
Most importantly, a good leader recognizes his or her, own personal limitation from which prudence arises and upon which sound judgment relies. Which one or more of the candidates understands themselves well enough to exercise sound judgment and be an effective leader? Ask yourself that question when you decide on whom to vote for February 12, 2008. How will that candidate govern if elected? Stay tuned to The Pursuit of Justice next time for that discussion.