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

23 July 2012

“That Vision Thing”


In 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush (Dubya’s father) lost the presidency to Bill Clinton. Reporters asked him why. Among other things, he confessed that he lacked “that vision thing.”

Apparently his campaign team had warned him about “vision,” but he just couldn’t manage any. Wasn’t a president’s job to fight brush fires, wade into the swaps and bag a few crocodiles, and generally just stay afloat? Wasn’t it to play chess and checkmate the bad guys, as he had done as director of the CIA? The very phrase “that vision thing” suggests how remote vision was from GHWB’s psyche.

He wasn’t a bad president, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his son, he didn’t do any real harm. Unlike his son, he took Colin Powell’s sage and expert advice [search for “nickname”] and didn’t invade Baghdad. As a result, the Gulf I war, over which he presided, was probably the shortest, most brilliant and least costly major military victory in American history.

But vision wasn’t his style, and he hadn’t any.

Fast-forward now to 2004. At the age of 59, for the first time in my life, I spent both money and time in a presidential campaign. I just couldn’t stand the thought of what four more years of Dubya’s catastrophic stupidity would do to the country I love. When John Kerry lost, I was devastated and horrified, just like most Democrats and many independents.

But analysis is part of my DNA. So I asked myself why Bush won. The answer came unbidden. As stupid and incompetent as he was, Dubya had had the vision, and Kerry had had none.

It didn’t matter that Kerry is an honest, bright man. It didn’t matter that he had been a hero, both in fighting and getting wounded in the Vietnam War, and later in protesting it after he saw how mistaken it was.

It didn’t matter that Kerry is personally modest and admirable. In fact, his classic New England modesty actually hurt him, rendering him unable to defend himself when the Swift Boaters falsely maligned his service and his character. His plausible claim to be more competent than Duyba—a claim that almost any sentient college graduate could have made—fell on deaf ears.

What mattered was that Dubya had the vision. It didn’t matter that his vision of an Iraq and a Middle East reconfigured by war was contrary to all of history and common sense. It didn’t matter that his home “ownership society” was already under erosion by rogue banks and lax regulation. It didn’t matter that his attempt to privatize Social Security was retrograde to history and contrary to every poll of what ordinary people wanted. It didn’t matter that he has absolutely no diplomatic skill and could only preach to his choir.

What mattered, in the end, was that Dubya had a vision for the future that sounded attractive and plausible, and Kerry had none. Vision trumped a more-than-plausible claim of greater competence. It will (and probably should), every time. Things are moving too fast in our complex world to have a caretaker president, an affable but clueless accountant like Romney.

Now let’s look at vision today. From long before the beginning of his campaign in 2007, President Obama knew where he wanted to take the country. In his 2004 keynote speech, he prescribed a cure for the division of the Vietnam Era and the civil rights movement that still split us.

The good doctor’s prescription wasn’t “socialism,” redistribution of income, or any other of the lies Fox tells about him. It was simply working together, recognizing our common humanity and common interests as Americans living in the same land. Half-black and half-white, Obama was uniquely positioned to see both sides of our racial divide, as well as other divisions.

Obama’s candidacy, as later his policies, were based on insight, careful thought and nuance. He elaborated his vision for the country more thoroughly in his second book. Then he based his nascent presidential campaign on his vision that war is not the right way for a country like America to lead the world.

In his 2008 campaign, he sketched a detailed vision for combatting terrorism [search for “recent speech”], which he has now started to make real. He also sketched a detailed and complex plan for health care, admitting that a public option, although desirable, was and is politically impossible. Now, with the laudable judicial restraint of Chief Justice Roberts, that plan will remain law and go forward. (The only difference between the plan and the law is the so-called “mandate,” which I feared as politically risky when Hillary proposed it but Obama, with his superb political skill, managed to pull off.)

The GOP obstructionists want voters to believe that all Obama promised was “hope and change.” But that was just a slogan. For those who cared enough to turn off Fox and the other TV echo chambers and read, there were speeches and positions papers on Obama’s vision galore. His vision was as clear as an unpolluted fall day: less jingoism and more cooperation abroad, more reliable safety nets at home, a more human, more regulated form of capitalism (including health insurance), markets and free trade working better and more fairly, and jobs in this century’s industries, not those from the nineteenth and twentieth.

To anyone who took the time to look behind the headlines of feckless American media, the difference was clear. Obama had the vision, and irascible, economically illiterate but heroic fighter pilot John McCain had none. Guess who won?

Today the difference should be equally clear. Obama’s supporters, like me, can see his original vision shining through the fog and lies of what passes for democratic campaigning today. Anyone can see that Mitt Romney is an opportunist, with no coherent vision of what the country would look like under his leadership. He can’t even make up his mind about how many abortions should be legal, whether his own “Obamacare” in Massachusetts was the right approach, or whether the health-insurance “mandate” is a tax.

Romney is a weathervane, flapping every which way in every breeze. His pathetic attempt at “vision” consists of reciting the Gospel of Grover Norquist and promoting lower taxes for the rich and less regulation for business, including the banks that put us in the fix we’re in. In other words, he reads right out of the Little Red Book of ideology that dragged our nation from top of the world to “trying hard.”

His positions reflect no coherent world view, let alone original thought. Like Hillary Clinton before him, he’s a follower, not a leader. And it doesn’t take too much insight to understand whom this investment banker is following.

All we really know about Romney is that he’s very rich and wants to be president. That’s probably all we’ll ever know.

Good luck with that. Ask Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina how they fared in trying to buy high office in California.

Of course the President should reply to lies and misleading charges, with all the power and skill of his superb campaign staff. He’s just as modest a man as Kerry, but he’s smart enough to learn from Kerry’s mistakes. He’s not going to take false charges lying down.

But there are many voters, including me, for whom the mud-wrestling match that passes for politics these days is not only nauseating but boring. According to a recent analysis in Time Magazine, highly educated professionals like me are an important and rapidly growing part of the electorate and donor base.

We don’t want frat-boy chops and counterchops. We’re not electing a fraternity president. We want policy and vision. We want to see some more of what we saw in the President the first time he ran, in 2008. We want to see plans and proposals for what the future should be like and how to get us there.

They don’t have to be long. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is still one of the most important speeches in American history, and it takes only a couple of minutes to read.

To say the President can provide that vision better than Romney is to state the obvious. Romney is no thinker or planner; he’s an egotist and an opportunist, with far more brass than skill.

Just like Kerry’s, Romney’s sole claim to the presidency is that he would be more competent than the incumbent. But in his case, the claim is implausible.

Obama is brilliant, not stupid like Dubya. And there’s nothing in Romney’s history to back his claim up. His experience at Bain is irrelevant at best. Even if he did create net jobs there, presidents don’t do anything like what he did at Bain. The don’t use other people’s money to refinance and turn around failing corporations—especially if they are Republicans. (Raising that kind of money might require raising taxes, and spending it might disturb the sanctity of markets.)

In dealing with Congress, Romney would have to start from scratch. His campaign so far has shown us only an affable flip-flopper with an unrealistic faith in himself and absolutely no concrete plans or vision for anything except his campaign, starting a trade war with China and maybe a real war with Iran.

Yet even we, who have every confidence in the President’s judgment and vision, haven’t seen that side of him emerge decisively yet. That’s a shame. If an idiot like Dubya can win over a good man like Kerry with an unrealistic vision and no realistic plans to get there, surely a man with the President’s brains can win over a man like Romney with a thoughtful, detailed and realistic vision for our future.

The President’s vision for our country in 2008 was a good one. It still is. Surely he can update, refine and clarify it after 3.5 years in office. Surely he can present it to the public even more clearly and succinctly this time. And surely he and his campaign staff are smart enough to walk the walk of countercharges and chew the gum of vision at the same time.

Maybe he’s just biding his time until after Labor Day, when the campaign really begins. I hope so. But rather than devoting all his time and money to proving that Romney is a skunk, the President might take a few moments, once in a while, to remind us who he is.

Coda: The Blame Game

During the Cold War, the Russians had a joke about why Brits have beautiful gardens. If Mr. Smith sees that Mr. Jones has a better garden, they said, Smith will stay up late at night for weeks, working on his own garden, to make it still more beautiful than Jones’. In contrast, if Mr. Toporov sees that Mr. Rostov has a better garden, Toporov will stay up even later at night—to trample Rostov’s flowers.

Blame is like that. You don’t create anything, build anything or propose any better vision. You just trample the other guy’s flowers.

Unfortunately, that’s what our elections have become. We have morphed into Russians’ caricature of their Soviet selves. We don’t build or propose anything admirable. We just tear the other guy down.

Paid consultants tell us we have to do this because it works. Really!!??? If so, we have more in common with the Mr. Toporovs of the Cold War than with the Roosevelts (both of them), Eisenhowers, Kennedys and even Reagans of our own past.

How we got this way is lost in the fog of cultural putrefaction. But the most recent culprit is clear as day. The GOP started the blame game’s most recent inning, just days after President Obama’s election. They never let up. Their goal is to blame the consequences of Dubya’s extreme incompetence on the incumbent, counting on the electorate not remembering much before their last Tweet.

What other choice did they have? Dubya started two unnecessary wars, which are still ongoing (one without our combat troops). He kept them off budget. He lowered taxes, most notably on the rich, creating huge deficits. And then he presided over the raucous finale of our deregulation party, allowing selfish bankers to destroy an otherwise smoothly functioning global industrial economy.

The GOP’s stale ideological dogma was responsible for our sudden decline. But they have not softened it one whit. Instead, they’ve made it even more extreme. They’ve demonized taxes, which Nixon and Reagan both raised. They’ve promoted coal and oil above all modern sources of energy. And they’ve rejected science, including evolution and climate change.

So all that’s left to them is a simple pitch: “Vote for us, even though our policies destroyed the country slowly, over the last thirty years, because the guy in charge now wasn’t good enough to set things right in three years, against our scorched-earth opposition.”

It’s a moronic, mendacious scoundrel’s pitch. But it’s their own, and it may be working. To do anything more would require reforming their party around true conservative principles of caution, prudence, thrift, conservation and a humbler foreign policy.

The GOP is not ready to do that yet. It probably won’t be until its next decisive electoral loss. So it blames.

This strategy is clever in only one small respect. There’s not much to blame Romney for because he hasn’t done anything yet. He’s only held electoral office for four years, as governor of Massachusetts, and he disclaims the most important thing he did there: “Obamacare” at the state level. If elected, he would be the least experienced president in American history.

So Romney is a blank slate, a ringer, a dark horse. He has no record of political accomplishment to blame. And voters today, having the attention span of gnats, don’t often think about what Dubya did to our country.

So the blame game has a playing field inherently tilted against the President. That’s why he needs to start talking about his vision and plans for our nation’s future. That’s where he excels, and that’s where this election will decide whether we’ve become like hapless Soviet slaves to failing ideology or are still competent, forward-looking Yanks.

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