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

29 November 2007

Lightweights and Heavyweights

Last night’s YouTube-assisted Republican debate proved what we already knew. Out of some sixteen presidential candidates, no more than three are actually qualified to be president. The rest are lightweights.

It makes you long for the old days, when savvy, world-weary, largely anonymous party bosses picked the nominees in smoke-filled rooms. Sometimes they picked badly. But they rarely chose lightweights.

Often they gave their party’s convention a real choice among heavyweights. When they did, the nominee that emerged from the “floor fight” was ready not just to wage a good campaign, but to govern the country if successful.

The stakes have never been higher. The choices we make may determine whether one of our major cities gets nuked in the next eight years, bringing on a uniquely American police state or a new dark age. They may determine whether our grandchildren will live on a planet that looks and feels like the Earth today.

Yet measured against the challenges, the quality of the field has never been lower. The Republican front runner, Rudy Giuliani, has held no public office higher than mayor. In our entire history, we’ve never stooped so low. Why should we do so now, when the stakes are so high?

There are reasons why Rudy has never attained higher office. In the eight years between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11, he couldn’t even manage to get New York’s fire fighters radios that worked. That’s why so many of them died on 9/11. He also put the command center for New York’s emergency services right in the World Trade Center complex, where it was predictably destroyed on 9/11. Electing a president with a track record of neglect and incompetence on that scale would be committing national suicide.

Then take Mitt—please. So rich, so arrogant, so full of himself, so full of numbers. We’ve seen his like before, in Robert S. McNamara, the author of the War in Vietnam. At his very best, Mitt is just like McNamara: a narrow, arrogant, soulless technocrat without humanity or experience in world affairs. We at least ought to study the history of that war and the awful man who brought it to us before making the same mistake again.

But Mitt is even worse than McNamara. McNamara at least pretended to be a serious policy maker, not a demagogue. Mitt is busy trying to out-demagogue Rudy on immigration. He’s a lightweight’s lightweight.

Hillary Clinton is better, but not much. According to our brainless pundits, she has “won” most of the too many Democratic debates. Yet on every major decision in her political career, she has failed or made the wrong choice. In the early nineties, she failed to develop a health-care plan that Congress could adopt. In 2002, she voted to authorize a disastrous war in Iraq, and she did so for political reasons, without even reading the crucial report. This year she voted to give the Bush Administration a pretext for invading Iran.

On vital domestic issues like immigration and social security, she has waffled and temporized to the point of caricature. She’s running as the nation’s fallen but reformed mother, a cheery and confident figure who touts her failure on health care as “experience.” She’s a walking lemon trying to sell herself as lemonade.

So what makes a heavyweight? Mostly, experience. I don’t mean experience in the type of high-school chop contests that pass for presidential debates today. Hillary, Mitt and Rudy are all good at that. I mean experience in making and publicly announcing tough choices with real, national consequences and having the choices stand the test of history.

You don’t have to wield executive power to do that. All you have to do is make choices, announce them publicly, and stand by them. Oh—and one other little thing: your choices have to be right.

Take John McCain. He’s been decisive, and he always lets us know his mind. He hasn’t waffled until recently (probably due to bad campaign advice), and his waffling concerns mainly social and religious issues—hardly the vital questions of our time.

On things that really matter, McCain has been vocal, rock solid, and mostly right. He supported invading Iraq, but he also supported the generals who wanted to do what had to be done to win. He was the first figure of national prominence to recognize That Idiot Rumsfeld for what he is. Had Dubya fired Rumsfeld when McCain first advised doing so, we’d probably be getting out of Iraq by now. And McCain has been right and a leader on other vital issues, including energy independence, money and politics, immigration and torture.

Sadly, that list of issues also explains why McCain is behind. Mitt and Rudy are busy demagoguing immigration, making noises as if we can solve the problem by hermetically sealing our borders and deporting undocumented workers already here.

Of course we can’t. Not only would any such “solution” require more immigration officers than we have troops in Iraq. It would also turn our country into a police state the like of which none of us would care to live in, let alone admire. And if we succeeded, who would wash our clothes, make our hotel beds, cut our lawns, landscape our homes, care for our children when we are at work, and cut and pack our meat? Demagoguery on an issue that important—which cuts that close to our fundamental national values—is the mark of lightweights who would be unpredictable and dangerous in office.

Lightweights’ demagoguery is not heavyweights’ only obstacle. There is also the weight of time. No one can be right all the time. Nor can any one person appeal to everyone in this diverse land. As time goes on, heavyweights like McCain get scars of dissent and struggle. They make mistakes, and they make enemies.

The tests of a heavyweight are not making mistakes or provoking opposition. Any good leader will do both. The tests are whether the choices are right most of the time, whether the rare mistakes are important, and, if so, whether they are acknowledged and corrected in time to avoid serious harm.

But the lightweights don’t want us to apply this common-sense test. They believe we will elect a person who has made few decisions and reveals few views, but who cleverly panders to our worst fears and suspicions, and then only in a nonspecific way. They believe we want a “perfect” candidate who has made no mistakes because he or she has never done anything really hard and balks at making and publicly revealing though choices.

Rudy, Mitt and Hillary don’t understand that you can’t demagogue or “triangulate” real life. Isn’t that the definition of a lightweight?

So who are the Democrats’ heavyweights? There are only two: Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

Biden has McCain’s longevity in the Senate and considerable experience in foreign affairs. He was instrumental in our successful intervention in Bosnia, and his well-publicized advice for “soft” partitioning of Iraq may be the only way to stop the millennial bloodletting there. He also co-authored the 1990s bill to put 100,000 new cops on our streets. But he’s not known for any particular risky but ultimately correct decision. Like most of the rest of the Senate, he voted to authorize the war in Iraq. He’s experienced, bright and savvy but not a notable leader.

That leaves Obama. Although his twelve years of political experience will be right in the mainstream for presidents, he is younger and less experienced than Biden. Yet he has stuck his neck out prominently on vital issues more than Biden—on Iraq, on Iran and on going after bin Laden in Pakistan.

So far Obama’s neck is in fine condition. History has not yet fully rendered its verdict, but he appears to have been right, if not prescient, on all three. The recent turmoil in Pakistan reminds us just how important our unfinished business there may be.

Obama is also a man with once-in-a-century political skill. His 2004 keynote speech was universally admired not for his unusual background, but for its substance.

Already Obama has built a reputation as an honest and outspoken straight shooter with uncanny judgment and wisdom on crucial issues. In short, he’s a younger, smarter and steadier John McCain. He is also a less contentious figure, and his values are more in tune with the Democrats’ and therefore now with the country’s.

Anyone who believes that our children’s future depends on how our president thinks on gays, guns and abortion hasn’t been reading the newspapers. Heavyweights like McCain, Obama and Biden de-emphasize those divisive and historically irrelevant disputes. They focus on issues that will determine whether our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be happy and prosperous or full of debt, struggle, pollution, pain and misery. And they stick their necks out to give us real choices. Our Republic might survive with any of them as leader.

Serious people know that this is the most important election in two generations. If we could bring back those savvy party bosses and their smoke-filled rooms, they would know that the chips are down. They would pick only heavyweights as nominees for our most important office, especially at this turning point in history. Will we?

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