In my May 2, 2008 Column, I ended my commentary on “Decision-making Style Makes and Breaks Presidents” by suggesting that there are..”solid hints as to each of the remaining candidates’ decision-making styles and discipline as well as the identity of their circle of advisors, the extent of their intellectual curiosity and interest in the areas of foreign policy/national security, economic policy and judicial appointments,” This column begins the search for those hints in the rhetoric and the public behavior of each of the candidates. This search is conducted notwithstanding the repeated admonition by pundits who have preceded me most recently, Michael Abramowitz, Washington Post White House Reporter for many years that “history tells us to be cautious about using campaign rhetoric to predict how presidents will operate on the world stage.”
Recent history illustrates why the case for caution argued by Abramowitz and this writer in previous columns commenting on the perils associated with allowing political theater to drive policy is compelling. In 1992 candidate Bill Clinton attacked George H.W. Bush (Bush I) for “coddling the butchers of Beijing.” Upon his election, President Clinton immediately reverted to the long- term U.S. Strategy of patiently trying to engage China.
Following suit in 2000 candidates George W. Bush (Bush II) sharply condemned Clinton’s approach to “nation-building.” Well, guess what! President George W. Bush, notwithstanding this campaign posture, has engaged in two of the biggest nation-building projects in U.S. History in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much for consistency between politics and policy.
That having been said let’s throw caution to the wind and engage in some prognosticating or alternatively let’s lament that the candidate’s rhetoric and public behavior is too sparse to predict policy choices from it. That’s a difficult case to make with respect to candidates McCain and Clinton. Both have been on the public stage in one capacity or another for over a quarter of a century. Both have comparatively large paper trails. Both have cast votes on many of the major issues they could face as President. Candidate Obama on the other hand hasn’t been on the National Stage very long. His rhetoric therefore is more limited and recent, but also more interesting.
Before we start parsing Obama’s, Clinton’s and McCain’s words and record of action to predict their policy pronouncements, indulge me in some demythification of some distinctions among them which are neither real nor significant. First the distinction that Clinton and Obama have debated between their health care plans is completely meaningless for a number of reasons.
In order to find the debated “differences” between Obama’s health care plan and Clinton’s plan significant, observers would have to forget or ignore the reality that there is both a legislative branch of government (Congress) and an executive branch of government (President). Is there anyone who believes that a President Obama would not sign a bill which embodied Senator Clinton’s health care plan? Conversely is there any reader who isn’t sure whether a President Hillary Rodham Clinton would sign legislation which embodied Senator Obama’s health care plan. If there is anyone who believes they would not sign each others legislation in this area recognizing that the legislative process requires compromise, their goals in the area of health care policy are the same i.e. universal coverage, and that each of their proposals moves the country in that direction, then please let me know your identity and if you are willing to give me odds, I’ll take them. Senator McCain’s market-based and dependent health care plan on the other hand does substantially differ from both Democratic candidates’ proposals and there is a serious doubt as to whether he would sign or veto either or both of their plans if they were passed by a Democratic Party controlled Congress. The converse is also true.
In fact there are few, if any authentic and significant differences on issues between the Democratic Party Candidates for President which is why the campaigns of each of them have of necessity emphasized style, personality, and process issues. Even in the area of foreign policy where they seek to distinguish their processes and style not only from President George W. Bush and by implication from Presidential Candidate, John McCain, but also from each other, they succeed in the former, but struggle in the second effort.
The most sensational issue which both The Clinton campaign and The McCain campaign have raised against Obama is their opposition to his stated intention to meet “without precondition” with “enemy foreign leaders” such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong II or the Castro brothers. This intention “elevated to policy” is now rhetorically escalated to “doctrine.” The media through various pundits such as columnist, Charles Krauthammer, then takes it even further by describing what began as a philosophical digression as “Obama’s Metastatic Gaffe” while predicting doom and gloom in the form of “damage to our national security” and the dissolution of our alliances.”
Now come on! Do any of the pundits and partisans wailing in the op-ed columns and press releases really believe that a President Obama would literally drop in on any of these foreign despots for a chat without an agreed upon agenda in advance. Of course not! However Obama himself has contributed to the script of this rather silly political theatre production by declining to explain that the protocol for “meeting without precondition” which he advocates is not at all different from what his predecessors such as Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman did and differs only slightly from The Bush Administration’s position. The only difference is that Bush refuses to meet with the “tyrants” who rule rogue states with or without preconditions.
Of course the common-sense question that should be asked in this debate which has not been addressed, but which would render the issue meaningful and understandable is, “What would you talk to these enemy leaders of rogue states about with or without pre-conditions?” The real reason that the President of the United States should not negotiate with these people is because there has to be something to talk about and unless there is, The President of the United States would besides wasting his or her time inadvertently be increasing the attention, prestige and leverage given to these “enemy dictators” for no good reason whatsoever.
This whole “drama’ now being brought into your homes and offices on a weekly basis by the media was foreseen and developed in another theatrical production by George Bernard Shaw a compulsive realist over a century ago. In 1905 Shaw premiered his play “Major Barbara.” In the preface to that play, Shaw wrote, “If a man cannot look evil in the face without illusion, he will never know what it really is or how to combat it effectively. Barrack Obama apparently wants to, as a policy, “look evil in the face” without illusion” in order to learn more about “what it really is” in the hopes of learning how to “combat it effectively.” And he wants to do that sooner rather than later! He is also willing to assume greater risks than Clinton and McCain to do so. Like Shaw’s character Major Barbara, Obama believes “There is room for idealistic faith in a world that runs on money and gunpowder…..There is no wicked side: life is all one.” The more conventional politicians are not there yet. Where are they? That’s the next few columns.