Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 August 2007

Five Questions for Vetting Candidates


Introduction
1. Does the candidate know anything?
2. Is the candidate an admirable person or a jerk?
3. Does the candidate take issues and opponents seriously?
4. Can the candidate think?
5. Whom will the candidate pick for the team?
Conclusion

Introduction

I stopped watching the so-called presidential “debates” recently. Why? Because they’re more about entertainment than serious policy.

Anyone who expects thirty-second answers to difficult policy questions is a fool. That’s the sort of bumper-sticker management that brought us the war in Iraq, our incurable dependence on Mideast oil, inadequate health care in the world’s richest country, and huge trade and fiscal deficits with no end in sight. If you like entertainment, there are far better shows on TV than the presidential debates, with more accomplished writing and far better acting talent.

The so-called presidential “debates” are virtually useless for vetting candidates. So what can we do? We can get our media to ask themselves five questions about the candidates. If they ask these questions relentlessly, we just might avoid repeating the mistakes of the last seven years.

1. Does the candidate know anything?

Its astounding how little knowledge most candidates reveal in their debates and interviews. They talk about their hopes for the future. Sometimes they make vague promises. They tell about the hardships they overcame in their rise toward the top. If they haven’t really overcome any hardships, they make them up. They tell us little inspiring stories about other people that they’ve heard. They praise others’ heroism, hoping some will rub off on them. They take general positions on “issues.” But they refuse to tell us what they’d do in probable future scenarios, saying “I don’t do hypotheticals.”

During my single days, I once dated a woman who had a very simple standard for continuing a relationship. “I expect a man to tell me at least something I don’t already know,” she reported. “If he doesn’t do that on the first date, he’ll never see a second.”

That’s not a bad criterion for picking a candidate for president. Does the candidate ever say anything that you didn’t know beforehand?

I’m not talking about amusing bon mots, ideological positions, or droll little stories. I’m talking about facts or insights related to facts. I’m talking about actual knowledge of history, foreign affairs, geography, science, law, current events, or how the world actually works.

Has George W. Bush ever given you any fact or insight that you didn’t know beforehand? I’ve heard him say things that I didn’t and still don’t believe. I've heard him swear to things that turned out to be spectacularly false. And I’ve heard him repeat himself endlessly. But I’ve never heard him say anything that made me think “Gee, I didn’t know that!” The vast majority of politicians in our country are much the same.

We all expect our airline pilots, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer installers, and bosses to know things we don’t. Why not our president?

2. Is the candidate an admirable person or a jerk?

Some candidates have a life story that inspires admiration, if not awe. John McCain spent half a decade in a North Vietnamese prison camp, refusing an offer to be let go before his comrades. Hillary Clinton suffered the most widely publicized marital difficulties in human history, overcame them, saved her family, and went on to become the first serious female candidate for president.

Other candidates have little that is admirable in their own lives, so they belittle what seems admirable in others. Take George W. Bush, for example. A rich man’s idle son, he never succeeded in anything until he began working on his father’s campaigns. He used his family’s political connections to ride out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard, and his service there was questionable.

Yet when Bush ran against a real war hero, John Kerry, he tried to tarnish Kerry’s war record. Perhaps Kerry’s campaign exaggerated his heroism. But no one denies that Kerry fought and was wounded in Vietnam. So a man who had ducked the fight impugned the courage and patriotism of one who fought and was wounded.

The same point goes double for Dick Cheney. His five draft deferments let him avoid combat in Vietnam. Yet he and his minions disparaged the courage and patriotism of former Senator Max Cleland (D. Ga.), who had lost both legs and his right forearm in Vietnam, just because they disagreed with Cleland on policy.

There’s only one word for that sort of person: a jerk.

And how else would you describe Mitt Romney? Asked why his five strapping, good looking sons never served in uniform, he said they are doing their part for their country by helping his campaign. He trivialized the sacrifice of all those who suffered, fought, and died for our country, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Some things deserve universal respect, regardless of party, position, and ideology. Bravery in combat for country is one of those things. If a candidate refuses to give proper respect when due, how can we trust his judgment or his humanity?


3. Does the candidate take issues and opponents seriously?

Presidential elections are not popularity contests. We’re not picking a leader for our college fraternity or sorority.

Yet too often frat-boy “chops” work in a candidate’s favor. They do so because the media give them far too much attention. A candidate’s preference for verbal chops over serious discussion is one of the very few useful things you can learn from presidential debates.

George W. Bush has been our frat boy in chief. He showed great skill using “chops” in what should have been serious debates about policy. He “Swift Boated” John Kerry. Then he “Flip-Flopped” him. Later, he countered Democratic resistance to his gross mismanagement of the war in Iraq by calling Democrats “Defeatocrats.” If you listened to 2004 Republican rallies chanting “flip-flop, flip flop,” you might have been excused for recalling grammar-school children chanting “Nya, nya-nya nya nya.”

Maybe after seven years of unremitting policy disasters, our media and the public are wising up. Maybe they understand that that sort of childish hazing is not the best way to select or assess the leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush is not our only practitioner of name calling and the verbal chop. In an attempt to claim the higher ground in experience, Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama naïve for saying we ought to go after bin Laden in Pakistan if Musharraf won’t.

As it turns out, following actionable intelligence for that purpose has been official Administration policy since shortly after September 11. So Clinton struck out on two counts: she apparently didn’t know about the national policy, and she obscured a vital issue—what to do about the terrorists, still at large, who killed so many of our fellow citizens on 9/11. She just didn’t take the issue or her opponent seriously. She did imply that Obama and others should keep quiet about the issue, thereby supporting the same sort of secretive, “trust me” government that has served us so well for the last seven years.

But Hillary Clinton has nothing on Mitt Romney when it comes to seeking Bush’s crown as frat boy in chief. Recently Romney accused Barack Obama of acting like Jane Fonda one day and Doctor Strangelove the next. He was referring to the liberal actress who made unlawful visits to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the fictitious character, in the movie of the same name, who sought nuclear Armageddon.

Romney’s remark might have been amusing at a fraternity party. But he was responding to Obama’s promise to talk to our enemies and to pursue bin Laden in Pakistan if necessary. The fact that this exchange occurred across two debates (Republican and Democratic) and not within one, highlights the low value of each debate separately.

Maybe Romney didn’t remember that failing to talk to our enemies nearly caused nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Maybe he forgot that talking to the Soviets produced nuclear disarmament and eventually led to the Soviet Union’s fall without a shot fired. Maybe he thought we should do nothing about the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks, simply because he hides in a country that is our ostensible ally and has nuclear weapons.

But Romney said none of these things. He simply made light of two of our most serious failures of policy—our defective diplomacy and our embarrassing failure to get bin Laden. Making light of serious issues is another sign of a jerk, not a serious candidate for president.

No one called Romney on it because Obama wasn’t present at the same debate. Nor did Romney (or anyone else in the Republican debate) offer a serious and credible prescription to cure these two key failings of national policy. All they offered was frat-boy one-liners.

We’ve had a frat boy and jerk like Romney in power for seven years, and his rule hasn’t turned out too well. We certainly don’t need another. We do need a candidate-vetting process that shows, in real time, how inappropriate that sort of flippancy is in a person who aspires to national leadership.


4. Can the candidate think?

It’s hard to judge whether a candidate can think from thirty-second sound bites. Our debates, media interviews and campaign ads showcase positions, not reasoning. The public seems to want raw meat that confirms its prejudices and policy preconceptions; it has little patience for underlying rationale. But if we give the candidates more than thirty seconds to air their views, we just might learn something about how their minds work.

If might have been helpful, for example, to have had a real debate about how many troops to send to Iraq. After Rumsfeld and Cheney made their rosy predictions of Iraqis greeting our troops with flowers, someone might have asked a probing question or two. Do we have enough troops to secure all those mounds of ordnance retreating Iraqis will leave scattered over the countryside? Do we have enough force to stop the Shiites from killing their erstwhile oppressors? to stop looting? to protect critical infrastructure? If we had had that debate even shortly after the invasion, we might have learned, in time for the 2004 election, that George W. Bush doesn't think; he just trusts his “gut” and his cronies.

It would also be nice to hear the reasoning, if any, behind Romney’s ridicule of Obama. Doesn’t Romney care about catching bin Laden? Has he heard about Musharraf’s assault on Islamic extremists at the Red Mosque? Does he suspect, like most informed observers, that Musharraf might just as soon be rid of bin Laden and the Taliban by any practicable means? Does he really think Musharraf would nuke us while we try to rid him of troublemakers that threaten his own power and his government’s stability? It would be interesting to hear Romney justify comparing Obama to Doctor Strangelove.

Of course, a president doesn’t always have to think alone. He or she has experts whose brains and wisdom to tap. But in the end, as Harry Truman confessed, the buck stops at the president’s desk.

We all know now how our current president’s dim intellect and lack of curiosity allowed Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s cocksureness to lead us to ruin. Before we go down that same road again, it would be nice to know whether our candidates can think.

5. Whom will the candidate pick for the team?

The past seven years have taught us the importance of the executive team. Three names—Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove—go a long, long way toward explaining the disaster of the last seven years. To verify this point, just imagine that Bush had listened to Colin Powell, rather than Cheney and Rumsfeld, on Iraq.

These three horsemen of the Apocalypse have done us a disguised favor. They have shown us in the most persuasive way imaginable how important it is to know in advance whom candidates will pick for their executive teams.

It may be too much to expect candidates to name names in advance. But we can ask—and insist that candidates tell us—what kind of people they will pick for what jobs. We can also ask for examples of short lists, to illustrate the types of team members they will seek.

The public and the media should be relentless in pursuing this information. Lincoln was a great president in large part because he was strong and wise enough to pick his principal political rivals—all extremely able men—for his cabinet. George W. Bush has been a failure largely because he exercised poor judgment in picking his main advisers: Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rove. Then he compounded the error by choosing obscure sycophants like Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers for other key positions.

Will a candidate pick team members from among his or her friends and cronies, or will the cabinet include household names with vast experience and their own public constituencies? Will a candidate pick a team with a diversity of views and experience, or only those who share a common background and ideology? Will a candidate “cross the aisle” for members of the opposing party, both to broaden support and to insure a diversity of views? These are some of the questions that every candidate should be forced to answer.

Conclusion

No business corporation would ever let a candidate for middle manager, let alone for CEO, get away with “interviews” or “debates” as superficial and puerile as those of our presidential candidates. If our national leadership has disappointed us, one reason may be that our media have consistently asked the wrong questions and settled for style rather than substance. Maybe if we can get our media to ask these five questions—and keep asking them until we get real answers—we’ll do better next time. Until then, we’ll all have to get used to the kind of third-world government that comes from mistaking policy for entertainment.


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