Friday, January 04, 2008

Is There an Actual Race Underway?

Against long odds, there appears to be an actual race underway for the next U.S. President.
Yes, yes, we all know the president has limited powers to actually change or influence the economy, culture and laws; but to say that "it doesn't matter who's president"--that's simply not true, as the last seven years have amply proven.

It is amazingly easy to be cynical about the candidates and the process. But rather than indulge in the easy art of trashing people for various sins, let's try to step back from ideologies and single-issue litmus tests--and perhaps even from likes and dislikes--to make a few observations.

1. Congresspeople generally lose elections to governors. There is no hard and fast rule here, but perhaps the "clubby" atmosphere of the House and especially the Senate does not engender the same skillset as being governor. No one has to herd more cats than a governor of a large state which is in many ways the equivalent of an entire nation.

This historical truism--the last senator to win an election was Jack Kennedy, and that was the nation's closest race until the 2000 election-- would give the governors Romney, Richardson and Huckabee a slight advantage.

2. The worst policy over-reaches tend to become law when the same party controls the White House and Congress. For instance: Vietnam was escalated in a Democrat-controlled era, and the Iraq War was instigated in a Republican-controlled era. (Many other examples come to mind.)

This would argue for a Republican president as being a better choice, as Congress will very likely be controlled by the Democrats.

3. There are Insiders and Outsiders. The political and financial elites may support an Outsider if that's the best way to maintain power (think General Eisenhower or Reagan) but in general they prefer to support an Insider: both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Bush I & II, etc.

Who's an Insider? Romney is the classic example of a wealthy, politically connected Eastern Establishment figure groomed to take care of his class. Hillary, though Midwestern, has elbowed her way into the right circles and is now an Insider--though not by birth like Romney. She is more like the no-holds-barred Mandarin who has fought her way into the inner circles of power--granted, on the ample coattails of her hubby, but nonetheless she made it in a way no former First Lady ever even attempted.

Who is an Outsider, feared and loathed by the Elites? Ron Paul is the ultimate Outsider, but John McCain is not far behind, being truly loathed by the Republican establishment as a "loose cannon" i.e. someone who is willing to buck the Party line. Richardson, Huckabee and Kuchinich are also Outsiders, though Richardson is very well connected in foreign policy circles.

Edwards may appear to be an Insider, but don't let that fool you--he's Southern, which makes him an Outsider. Only carpetbaggers like the Bush brothers--northeastern Elites who moved South but kept all the Yankee Elite connections--are Insiders.

Obama is moving in circles which are both populist and powerful in the Democratic Party, but in the larger scope he is definitely an Outsider.

Examples of Outsider presidents include Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Reagan and of course Bill Clinton. History suggests that the Elites work hard to trash and destroy any Outsider's presidency/influence, regardless of the party affiliation. Note that Outsiders are always Western (Missouri is the West to Bostonians and New Yorkers) or Southern.

4. Likeability counts except in times of crisis. Richard Nixon was not a cheery, bonhomie character, but the heightened social disorder and disgust with Vietnam in 1968 created a situation in which an unlikeable but tough, well-known Outsider could squeak by "The Happy Warrior," Hubert Humphrey.

Bush was more likeable in person than Gore, Clinton more likeable in person than Bush I or Bob Dole, Reagan was more personable than either Mondale or Carter, Kennedy was more charming than Nixon, etc. Whether you approve of this metric or not, it is rather obviously a key factor.

5. "Big Ideas" do matter. Sometimes a candidate merely represents a warm and fuzzy concept of vague appeal, i.e. "The New Frontier." In other cases, the candidate has a broad, powerful concept which motivates and shapes their presidency, i.e. "The Great Society" of Lyndon Johnson, or triangulating the U.S.S.R. and China to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam with the least possible geopolitical harm (Nixon).

The classic here is Reagan's "It's morning in America"--but recall that Reagan tackled the really thorny, politically "impossible" challenges of righting Social Security and taming runaway inflation. Even Clinton had one basic concept: "It's the economy, stupid," and he did manage to shrink the growth of the Federal government far more effectively than the Republicans who spouted off about "smaller governemnt" while ballooning deficits with wild spending increases.

So who has a "Big idea" in this election? From what I read, the only candidates with a consistently held "big idea" are Ron Paul--create a solid currency via a gold-backed dollar, and protection of civil rights--and to some degree, John Edwards, who has maintained a consistent focus on poverty and inequality in the U.S. John McCain has been consistently in favor of staying the course in Iraq, and he is the only candidate who has tried to fashion a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.

You may not like these candidates' views, but to say they don't espouse--and act on--big ideas is simply not being remotely fair to their records.

As far as I can tell, Hillary Clinton's Big Idea is to channel Karl Rove: treat the media with contempt, go into attack-mode whenever challenged, maintain a constant "whisper campaign" of half-truths and distortions to undermine your competitors and ruthlessly eliminate any staffers who aren't utter sychophants/"yes-men" and "yes-women."

This is certainly putting to use the "lessons learned" from the Bush administration, but I'm not sure the nation needs another four years of stonewalling/lying/obfuscation--I mean more than the usual allowance.

6. The only candidate who is remotely addressing the fundamental financial issues facing the nation is Ron Paul. The rest of the candidates are mum on the destruction of purchasing power (the destruction of the dollar), not to mention the Federal deficit, which gets lip service at best from the rest.

Many readers of this site are deeply concerned about the erosion of civil liberties which have been approved by both parties in Congress, and hence many of you support Ron Paul for his commitment to roll back the powers grabbed via the Orwellian-named Patriot Act. Many others support his consistent position that the Iraq War is a debacle and exiting is the only good strategy.

The rest of the field seems content to run permanent massive deficits, let the dollar sink, and play around the edges of pressing issues like immigration, civil liberties, the credit crisis, education and our failed "healthcare" system. In geopolitics, everyone seems to want the world to like us again. Nice, but what exactly does that mean? Candidates like Huckabee say the defense budget should be bumped back up to a Reagan-era 6% of GDP, but he fails to mention where that $300 billion will come from--borrowed from the Gult states and China, like the $1 trillion borrowed in the past seven years?

Or in summary: I'm here to tell you what you want to hear, but not how we're going to pay for it. The only candidate other than Ron Paul who has shown the courage to espouse unpopular views--for instance, that torture is neither morally justified nor a good policy, even if you're Republican-- is John McCain.

7. Having a solid mate and being a fast learner counts. First ladies (and now, perhaps, First Men) have time and again played pivotal roles in the presidency. We all know Bill, but what about the rest? It's a question I'm not qualified to answer, but I do listen to what my friends say about the spouses, for they are essentially partners in the presidency to come.

Jack Kennedy was as green as Obama or the other younger candidates, and as a result he made a bunch of mistakes early on. But he was a fast learner and he was able to make the right call in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was cautious, perhaps overly cautious, with his political capital, and he was blessed with a prosperity the next president will only look on with envy. But the issue of adaptability and learning remains key. Who among this varied field will be the quickest study as the crises keep coming? I don't have the answer, but it's an important question to keep in mind, especially given the gravity of the crises facing the nation.

Could Obama be a quick study? Huckabee? No doubt all the candidates are serious, smart people. Who can learn the quickest and not get overwhlemed--that is hard to say, but it remains a good metric to consider.

8. Experience counts--but what kind is actually important? Few presidents had more complex, pressing problems thrown at them one after the other than Harry Truman. He dealt with crippling industrial strikes, first use of nuclear weapons, the start of the Cold War, a hot war in Korea, etc. His popularity was very low and yet from the vantage point of history his standing continues to rise--if not to greatness, than to a stature lost on his critics at the time.

I personally attribute his toughness not to faith, though he had that, but to his experience as a combat officer in World War I. The more you know about World War I, the more you dwell on this experience as a possible crucible for Mr. Truman. Certainly the same could be said of Eisenhower's tremendous challenges as Supreme Commander in World War II (he was also an under-rated president) and Franklin Roosevelt's polio and subsequent Wilderness years.

So who amongst the candidates vying for the presidency has any personal experience of war, or a measure of personal crisis beyond typical human experience? In terms of war, only John McCain, the man who the Bush toadies saw fit to slander in 2000 (the last time I voted for him, against Bush) as "off his rocker" as a result of his experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Though John Edwards is widely mocked for his hair and for being a "lightweight," such mockery will not be sputtered here; for the loss of one's child is a blow no one but fellow parents can understand. Perhaps that loss has steeled him to make tough decisions and ignore the political consequences.

The rarest event in politics is a politician who takes an unpopular stand and sticks with it despite the catcalls, the boos, the derision and the slander. So far, the only candidates who have taken very unpopular stands and stuck with them, even when facing hostile crowds, are Ron Paul and John McCain. At a very personal level, that of integrity when under great pressure, I would choose one of these candidates. Policies can change or be dropped as reality changes, but the character of "grace under pressure" and the courage of conviction cannot be so easily acquired or sloughed off.

I am sure the other candidates have had their moments of difficult candor; that they have strong beliefs, and faith that they can do a good job for the American people; but that's not the same as being able to make choices which virtually no one will like and which the financial and political Elites will loathe. The person who can do that is the person who is qualified to be President--in my humble opinion.

Readers Journal has been updated! Three great new essays, a half-dozen thought-provoking comments plus a terrific short poem.

Readers commentariesGovernment bail-outs, Texas S&Ls, Eichler homes, polls, Anchorage and more

An Oxbridge Education (protagoras)

No Knowledge, No Accountability, No Problem: How Financial Institutions Use "Unknowable" to Dodge Responsibility for Their Own Mess (Zeus Y.)

Innovative Financing and the Housing Bubble: leasing with an option to buy (Peter F.)

Sitting with the Body (poem, Verona U.)

NOTE: contributions are humbly acknowledged in the order received.

Thank you, John I. ($30), for your continuing generous support of this humble site. I am greatly honored by your contributions and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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