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

09 July 2016

Character and Competence


[For a recent analytical post on Brexit in world-historical context, click here. For an analysis of the big lie about “free trade,” click here.]

In this essay, I’d like to propose a new theory of American presidential politics. With Trumpian modesty, I’ll call it the “Dratler Theory of Presidential Electability.” In essence, it holds that character trumps competence (pun intended), every time.

In an earlier essay, I applied this theory to explain the results of the last four presidential elections, which were as follows:

2000Dubya v. GoreDubya wins
2004Dubya v. KerryDubya wins
2008Obama v. McCainObama wins
2012Obama v. RomneyObama wins


In each case, the man whose character was more likely to appeal to the average voter won. Here, stripped to their essence, are the reasons:

2000Dubya: amiable, plain spokenGore: supercilious, arrogant, impatient
2004[Ditto]Kerry: aloof, stiff, unapproachable
2008Obama: calm, warm, unflappableMcCain: irascible, loose cannon
2012Obama: honest, steady, realisticRomney: self-inflated super-salesman


In 2000 the case for competence was lopsided. Dubya had held only one public office in his entire life: he had been governor of Texas for all of six years. He was probably one of the stupidest men ever to seek the presidency; he could barely speak English. In contrast, Gore was intelligent and had eight years in the House, eight in the Senate, and eight as Vice President. Yet Dubya won.

In 2004, the experience balance was more even. Dubya had been governor for six years and president for four years, while Kerry had been in the United States Senate for twenty years. As I pointed out in a previous essay, Kerry based his campaign entirely on competence, pointing to (among other things) the two unnecessary wars that Dubya had started, one of which (in Iraq) was then going badly. Yet Dubya won again.

In 2008, Obama was the relative newbie, with no personal military experience, eight years in the Illinois Senate and not yet four years in the U.S. Senate. McCain, in contrast had four years in the House and 22 in the Senate, not to mention six years as a POW and war hero. McCain was the grizzled veteran, in all senses of that word; but Obama won, despite the considerable burden of racism.

In 2012, Obama had the edge in both political experience and competence. He had a four-year term as president to add to his eight years in the Illinois Statehouse and four in the U.S. Senate. Romney had only four years as governor of Massachusetts. But Romney had a plausible claim to greater business experience and economic competence, at a time when job creation was the most important national issue. Obama won.

Character also helps explain what happened to Bill Clinton. A Rhodes Scholar, he was one of our most intelligent presidents in the last century. He gave us a huge surplus and 22 million jobs, and he moved to the center on issues like welfare reform. But he also looked right in the camera and lied, “I did not have sex with that woman!” And he seriously debated “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

The monicker “Slick Willie” never quite stuck, but a whole lot of Republicans and independents hated (and still hate) Bill and all he stood for, including the Democratic platform, largely on the basis of his character. Bill’s tendency to rub his rivals’ noses in his self-evidently greater intelligence didn’t help. Among other things, it made Newt his eternal enemy and bipartisan cooperation impossible. That’s a mistake that Obama never made because he has better character.

And so we come to Hillary and The Donald. Hillary has had eight years in the US Senate and four as Secretary of State. Trump has never held public office. Hillary graduated from Yale Law School, arguably our nation’s most exclusive. Trump never went beyond undergraduate school.

Just listen to the two of them speak, and Hillary’s education and experience show. She speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs and offers multi-point plans that address real facts and make good sense. The best Trump can do is offer scatterbrained Twits and insults, which make little sense and alienate large groups of people. (I know, I know. The proper word is “Tweet,” but somehow “Twit” sounds more appropriate for The Donald.)

On a scale of competence, there is no comparison between Hillary and Trump. You would have to be slightly barmy even to compare the two.

But however lopsided that comparison will be, competence will not decide this election. At least it will not decide whether Hillary squeaks by with a still-Republican Congress or sweeps all three branches and gives us Yanks a real shot at national renewal. Character will.

To see this point, you need only look at the Dubya-Kerry contest in 2004. There was absolutely no comparison on experience, intelligence, or competence, as Kerry’s subsequent sterling performance as Obama’s Secretary of State showed. Yet Dubya won.

Could the same thing happen to Hillary? It might. Like her husband, she has an appalling tendency to wiggle around inconvenient facts, rather than acknowledging and facing them honestly. It showed in the Vince Foster affair, Travelgate, her allegedly landing under fire in Bosnia, and her late confession of error in supporting Dubya’s unnecessary and disastrous war in Iraq. Today, it shows in the damning description of her lies—there is no other way to characterize them fairly—regarding her private e-mail servers as Secretary of State.

Among her untruths, as revealed by FBI Director Comey this week, are failure to acknowledge her multiple private servers, not actually getting permission to use them, using them for over one hundred previously classified e-mails, and failing to consult properly with cyber-security experts. And Comey, who made these factual conclusions after exhaustive investigation, has unimpeachable character credentials: he singlehandedly stopped a palace coup in the Attorney General’s office by Dubya and his sycophant Alberto Gonzales, in a famous confrontation at then-AG John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside.

The trouble is that Hillary’s competence actually exacerbates her character defects. You might excuse someone as stupid as Dubya or as self-centered and scatterbrained as Trump for failing to pay attention to factual details. But it’s not so easy to excuse a Yale Law School graduate who seems on top of all the details and nuances of both domestic and foreign policy.

So Houston, Hillary has a character problem, big time.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a character transplant. Character will out. And Hillary’s character has been evident not just in this campaign, but in her political career going back at least two decades. No transient campaign-based PR program can wash the stain away.

People of my level of education are willing to make allowances, in a contest with Trump, because of the huge gap in education, experience and well-considered policy. But is the average voter?

Most voters are not well-trained in abstract thinking. That’s why oversimplified issues like abortion, guns, and (formerly) gay marriage have such weight in presidential campaigns. In the big scheme of things, presidents can’t do much about them, except by appointing Supreme Court Justices. They hardly matter on a global scale: they can’t extinguish our species, as global warming or nuclear proliferation might. Yet real people cast real votes on these issues because they can’t be bothered with digesting the complexity and nuances of really important issues that presidents actually can manage.

Character is a cognitive shortcut just like that. If my theory is right, it may be the shortcut that transcends all other shortcuts. If voters like and respect your character, they may trust you to make decisions on issues that they know, deep down, they don’t understand and never will. And if they don’t trust you, it may not matter how smart and competent you are: voters might just fear that you’ll mislead or swindle them.

Donald Trump, of course, has even more execrable character. This week Dem-leaning PBS pundit Mark Shields accurately described him as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

That makes all the more astounding a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll on personal characteristics, reported by GOP-leaning pundit David Brooks on the same program. Asked who they thought was more honest or trustworthy, 41 percent of persons polled chose Trump, while Clinton stuck at 25 percent.

If those numbers don’t give Dems a headache, nothing should. The average voter, apparently, doesn’t clearly see cause and effect, let alone rank issues in order of importance. A lie about landing under fire in Bosnia may rank as high in the average voter’s consciousness as a lie about global warming, which could maim or extinguish our species, or a lie like the ones that led us to invade and occupy Iraq.

So rehabilitating Hillary’s character is most important thing she and her campaign staff can (and must) do for the rest of the campaign season. Nothing else matters as much, certainly not her competent handling of emergent events (like this week’s minority and police killings) that may come up during the campaign.

Without such rehabilitation, I now estimate Trump’s chance of winning the White House as 35%, up five percent from my last estimate. That’s more than a one-in-three chance of seeing an utterly scatterbrained, unqualified and incompetent leader presiding over a thoroughly divided and dispirited country. It’s also over a one-in-three chance of seeing a milder but distinct version of Germany’s Nazi psychotic break happening here. Superdelegates ought to consider all this as they assess their proper roles at the Dems’ upcoming convention in Cleveland.



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