THE PRESIDENCY GAMBLE
Part One of Three
The Non-Ideological Analysis
Every fresh presidential selection is a crapshoot. Every vote is a compromise in which a critical mass of voters selects a potential leader based on a prioritization of issues (pick your top three) against the high likelihood that unexpected events and circumstances will upend the whole list.
Our fleeting assessments of leadership are followed, inevitably, with disillusionment or pleasant surprise, but very, very rarely by “see, I told you so!”, at least as to the guy or gal we voted for. Think about it:
· Who knew in advance that James Earl Carter would turn out more preacher than doer?
· That Bill Clinton, the old-boy liberal from Arkansas, would lead us to welfare reform?
· That Richard Milhous Nixon, with all his warts, would lead a foreign policy opening to Maoist China?
· That Gerald R. Ford, the solid centrist, would successfully heal the Nixon era wounds then blow it all to pardon Nixon?
· That Ronald R. Regan, the genial Hollywood B” actor, would turn out to be a cunning and effective player in the international sandbox?
· That Harry S. Truman, with his under-eloquent Missouri twang and boss Pendergast machine roots, would become one of the great presidents?
FDR campaigned to reduce federal spending and balance the budget — and we all know how that turned out. JFK, ever eloquent and competent, who campaigned to close the “missile gap”, allowed Soviet nuclear missiles to be sneaked into Cuba 80 miles from the U.S. border, then brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in an attempt to correct his earlier mistake.
Who knew? Go figure.
We can’t ignore policy, ideology and party all of the time. But a strong case can be made that it is even more perilous to ignore character and experience….
Executive Competence: A Litmus Test?
The Government Executives
A vote for a president is a vote for about 1,000 people, mostly unknown to us, but absolutely essential to the creation a fresh executive footprint in real time. Bill Clinton, with all his wit and charm, found it difficult to overcome the limitations of experience: Coming from a tiny southern state (Arkansas, population about 2.5 million), I don’t think that he actually had 1,000 trusted, seasoned, competent and loyal aides who could then quickly fill out the key positions in the executive branch. [State troopers don’t count here.]
Deep into his first term, hundreds of appointments had not yet been made.
Executives acquire the necessary 1,000 trusted staffers and peers by virtue of the size and scope of their responsibilities. I submit that there is no substitute for experience, scope and scale, at this level.
Think of the US as a giant business. What board of directors would hire a CEO who had never managed something larger than a small grocery chain?
Among the top states in population, listed in alphabetical order, consider the nature of the experience a governorship can confer on the chief executive, particularly over more than a single term of office: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia…
A two term governor of any one of these states may arguably be presumed to have the necessary “executive gravitas” for the oval office – all other things equal. [Yes, all other things are rarely equal.]
The population of New York City is just over 8 million; this creates an executive area comparable to the states of Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina or Virginia. I submit that a two term mayor of that intractable city would also have acquired the “executive chops” for the job of POTUS.
Let’s now look at the presidential contenders just from the “executive resume” framework.
On the state or municipal executive side, reasonable observers would concede that both Romney and Giuliani have earned sufficient “resume” status. We can also include Governor Richards, if his additional federal experience is taken into account.
The Legislator Candidates & the “Mixed” Resumes
Members of the legislative branch acquire the needed executive resources much more slowly, as a result of accretion. This usually takes decades, service in key committee chair positions, think tank connections, and long term political alliances.
On the legislative side, we have four senators (Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Thompson) who have never chaired a major committee, nor authored any significant legislation; and two of them (Edwards and Obama) have not even served more than one complete term.
Senator John McCain stands out among the legislative branch candidates who still might have a shot at the nomination as having legislative tenure and gravitas. What this really means will depend on two assessments: How strong are the alliances acquired by this cranky, independent Senator from Arizona? How much “executive” weight will be given to his formative military responsibilities? Reasonable observers place McCain in the same executive tier as Romney and Giuliani.
Among the democrats, there are at least two legislative old-timers whose experience and tenure place them in the upper tier as well: Senators Christopher Dodd (Connecticut) and Joe Biden (Delaware). They make the resume cut by virtue of Committee Chair experience, legislative accomplishments and long acquired alliances among the important players in DC.
Governor Bill Richardson (New Mexico) also makes the resume cut by virtue of his earlier years as congressman, his service as the US Ambassador to the United Nations and as a cabinet member – he was the Secretary of the Department of Energy.
But – in the Darwinian world of practical politics, Senators Dodd and Biden and Governor Richardson are too far back in the race to be a threat to Mrs. Clinton.
Senator Obama still has a shot. No one else is even in remote contention.
Is Mrs. Clinton the Exception to “Executive Resume Deficiency”?
If not Sui Generis, Senator Clinton is certainly hard to classify. What about the claims of executive experience? We can safely assume that Hillary Clinton was an astute political observer during her husband’s presidency, one with the interest, access and ambition to learn from his experience. But, with the politically disastrous exception of her health care initiative in 1994, Hillary’s experience in her husband’s administration amounted to observation without accountability – or with reference to her husband’s sexual misconduct, accountability without observation.
In her zealous protection of Bill Clinton’s tattered moral reputation and, in other political struggles, she has demonstrated the ruthlessness of a cunning political consultant. Executive leadership requires a more substantial test and – truth be told – the dynamics of electability may require a bit more authentic humanity. As an astute political operator, Mrs. Clinton seems to have one thing down pat: Avoid alienating your base and reach out to the middle even at the cost of policy clarity.
In the short term, the Clinton problem is not the resume, but the straddle.
Conservative democrats and moderate republicans, for example, can only hope that a President Clinton, Version 2009, would be a firmer national security hand than the earlier iterations (Clinton Version 1993 and Clinton Version 1997).
But there is slim evidence, indeed, for the notion that Senator Clinton would be a tougher and more effective adversary for America’s enemies than her husband was. That is 90 parts hope to 10 parts assessment.
Like so many other bright line issues, the picture of HC as a foreign policy hawk (willing for example to credibly deter a nuclear Iran) is hard to ground in anything stronger than a selective reading from the tea leaves of her campaign rhetoric.
Any bright line picture of where Mrs. Clinton “stands” a leap of astigmatic faith — much like those in the peace movement who took Mr. Nixon seriously when he campaigned in a “secret plan” to get us out of Vietnam or those who thought Mr. Carter really meant it when he promised to balance the budget by 1984.
So the junior senator from New York still remains revealed only in a slim resume, one that is wrapped in an enigma and cloaked in carefully shaped rhetoric.
But, to most Americans, for better or worse, the picture of Senator Clinton’s character is well fixed.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “Character is destiny”. But for this election cycle, the aphorism will be about the character of the American people.
What do we American voters really care about in our next President?
General Political Ideology? Personal Character? Executive Competence? Leadership Experience? Agreement with our personal Short List of Three Big Issues? Not rocking the Boat? Rocking the boat?
In my next posting here, I will identify and discuss some looming issues; these limn the real policy choices that should tower over the current election cycle. They arise from the intractable realities that will inevitably preoccupy the next president (and at least one successor). Whether or not they fully surface in the current debate, or continue bubble just under the political radar, they will haunt the elections of 2012 and 2016.