The Act of Governance – What Matters?

The Republican Presidential Primary season, while still ongoing, is practically over. Senator John McCain barring an unprecedented faux pas, will be the Republican Party’s nominee for President and he’s already playing the role by rhetorically attacking the man he believes he will be running against in the Fall General Election Campaign, Senator Barack Obama. Senator Hilary Clinton and Senator Obama are more cautious for sound political and personal reasons. They continue to campaign against each other, in the case of Clinton furiously, in what increasingly looks like a last ditch effort with every political weapon at hand to change the “campaigns narrative” and the theme from “The Barack Obama Phenomenon/Movement/Momentum” to one she and her husband remember affectionately and would like to embrace completely one more time, “The Comeback Kid.”

            That role for mathematical reasons may escape her because even if she wins the next few primaries because of Democratic Party’s rules which award delegates proportionately, it will be difficult for her to catch up even with more “wins” than “losses” in the remaining state contests. That political reality has obviously not persuaded Senator Clinton and her Campaign’s managers and advisors that the fight is not worth continuing and they are doing so.
            The most recent weapon that they have unveiled is a Television Advertisement aired in all of the media markets where the campaign is raging. It depicts a young female child peacefully sleeping in her bed in a typical suburban middle class home in a typical middle class subdivision at 3:00 a.m. in the morning when unbeknownst to her the red telephone in the White House rings, presumably with news of some international crisis/ emergency which is not defined or even described. The voice in the Ad then rhetorically asks who the viewer/voter would want to answer the telephone. The Clinton campaign clearly thinks the voters viewing the Ad will somehow be persuaded by this visual to answer because of the experience and history she brings to the task– Senator Clinton.
            The Obama Campaign responded within record time thereby giving new dimension to the term, “Rapid Reply,” with a Television Ad that repeated the visual but pointed out that when the closest thing to such a call was in fact received by Clinton, she arguably did the “wrong thing” by voting to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq while senator Obama opposed it.
            Both these Ads serve as metaphors for addressing the issue of how these candidates will govern if elected. They also continue to illustrate, as I have emphasized, that politics is theater and that campaigns including ads such as these, are not particularly helpful in measuring a candidate’s ability to exercise good judgment and govern effectively.
            The reality is that neither Senator Clinton nor Senator Obama or for matter, Senator McCain have any life experience that illustrates their ability to govern effectively in this type of “crisis.” Nor does anyone else who has not already occupied The Office of President of the United States able to do so. Simply living in the White House, whether as First Lady or otherwise, even if while you were there you observed your spouse, who was the President of the United States receive and respond to these types of calls, does not necessarily or logically translate into the ability to effectively respond to and manage such emergency calls or other situations. Likewise Senator Obama’s stated opposition to war in Iraq even to his most partisan supporters can not be logically put forward as evidence of his ability to govern effectively govern an unanticipated crisis. That reality also encompasses the life history, admirable experience and heroic story which Senator McCain would bring to the Oval Office. Having been a Prisoner of War, soldier, courageous political warrior, etc. does not evidence competence to act in a worldwide political, diplomatic crisis or even military emergency.
            What does provide such evidence or at least hint at what matters? Here, if we as readers, listeners, and voters take the step on faith or for other reasons of being willing to believe these candidates when they talk about how they would approach the job of governance, their words may actually be illuminating.
            Again, former Harvard Professor,
Contributing Writer for the New York Times, now Deputy Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and a member of Canadian Parliament, Michael Ignatieff’s analysis is probative. Ignatieff in discussing the importance of the tension and ultimately the balance that should be struck between “principles” and “compromise” says, “Good Judgment means understanding how to be responsible to those who pay the price of your decisions.” To illustrate his point, Ignatieff sites the historical instance when the British political philosopher, Edmund Burke, when first elected to The House of Commons, told the voters of Bristol who had elected him, that “he would never sacrifice his judgment to the pressure of their opinion.” Ignatieff takes issue with Burke’s position. So does this writer. As Ignatieff himself a Canadian legislator and party leader, points out, “Sometimes sacrificing my judgment to theirs is the essence of my job, provided, of course that I don’t sacrifice my principles.”
            Professor Ignatieff explains further however that “Fixed principle matters. There are some goods that cannot be traded, some lines that cannot be crossed, some people who must never be betrayed, but fixed ideas of a dogmatic kind are usually the enemy of good judgment.”
            To illustrate this point, Ignatieff opines as an example that “It is an obstacle to clear thinking to believe that America’s foreign policy serves God’s plan to expand human freedom.  Ideological thinking of this sort bends what Kant called “The crooked timber of humanity” to fit an abstract illusion. Politicians with good judgment bend the policy to fit the human timber. Not all good things, after all can be had together, whether in life or in politics.”
            Isn’t this demonstrably true? In fact in the real world bad public policy can and often does turn out to be very popular in short term politics, does it not? Simply because resisting the popular will isn’t easy does not mean that it is the right thing to do or that it is wise to do so. As Ignatieff observes, “Good Judgment in politics is messy—It means balancing policy and politics in imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy—often yourself.”
            In a representative democracy such as ours again as Professor Ignatieff says—“knowing the difference between a good and a bad compromise is more important than holding to pure principle at any price. A good compromise restores the peace and enables parties to go about their business with some element of their vital interest satisfied. A bad one surrenders the public interest to compulsion of force.” With this in mind, what words or message from Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and Senator McCain should we be paying attention to? Read on next time to answer that question.

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