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

13 January 2008

Four Myths that Need Debunking

During the Democratic presidential campaign, our sleepy media have let four myths be taken as fact. All four are simply not so. Yet at least part of the public appears to have bought them, particularly in New Hampshire.

If Americans are to pick a president rationally, the myths deserve debunking. Here are the four myths and the reasons why they are demonstrably and sometimes spectacularly false:

Myth 1: Experience matters more than judgment. That anyone would dare to make this claim after the last seven years show how far our campaigns have departed from reality. George W. Bush’s entire presidency demonstrates the contrary.

After 9/11 came, Bush decided to divert attention and resources from bin Laden and Zawahiri, who were responsible, to Saddam, who wasn’t. When Katrina came, it was Bush who had decided to hollow out FEMA and install an incompetent crony as its leader.

Both debacles—Iraq and Katrina—are results of Bush’s failures of judgment. Colin Powell, who had 35 years of military experience, advised Bush not to go into Iraq or, if he did, to take twice as many troops as Bush authorized. Numerous members of Congress and his own Administration advised Bush to take the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA seriously. Yet his “judgment” told him to use FEMA as a laboratory to prove neoconservatives’ ideology of small government and outsourcing.

The point is not to recount Bush’s monumental failures of judgment. They speak for themselves. The point is that no one foresaw the unprecedented events that made those failures of judgment so devastating.

No one ever can foresee challenges like 9/11 or Katrina. Yet every president inevitably faces unforeseen challenges.

Experience makes little difference at the presidential level because it is nearly always the wrong experience. The challenges a president faces, like 9/11 and Katrina, won’t even resemble those faced by his or her predecessors. What matters is judgment: the ability to respond appropriately to new and unforeseen events, the like of which have never occurred.

The past few months drive home this point. Al Qaeda has begun to try to destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic nation, and its most popular democratic leader returned from exile and was assassinated. Who could foresee that? Kenya, arguably the most stable and democratic country in Africa, has imploded in rigged elections and tribal violence. Who could foresee that?

There was and is no “blueprint” or “experience” that would have prepared a president to handle the first devastating terrorist attack in New York City, the first hurricane that inundates an major American city, the first concerted attempt by terrorists to take over a nuclear armed Islamic state, or the implosion of a model African democracy in tribal violence.

The only thing any president can do when something wholly unprecedented comes up is listen to the experts and decide. Experts nearly always differ on the best course of action, so the president’s judgment in making final decisions is crucial. If Colin Powell had been president, for example, the history of our response to 9/11 and Katrina would have been entirely different, because Powell has superb judgment.

Myth 2: a presidential candidate’s detailed proposals for domestic legislation matter. Most presidential candidates don’t prepare detailed programmatic proposals for domestic affairs. Instead, they focus on broad themes and the high points of domestic policy.

Why? Because in our constitutional scheme, the president proposes but Congress disposes. Congress, not the president, sets domestic policy.

Congress today is deeply divided on ideology. What emerges from the legislative process seldom even resembles, let alone tracks, any proposal that the president makes. If any demonstration of this point were needed, the abject failure of Bush’s proposals on immigration and social security are ample proof.

Even if the Democrats enjoy a landslide victory at all levels next year, complete control of the legislative process is unlikely. The Senate’s filibuster rules require 60 votes to pass any legislation over the minority’s objection. Therefore any legislative proposal is likely to require the approval or acquiescence of a significant number of Republican Senators.

So what matters is not the details of a candidate’s proposals for domestic legislation during the presidential campaign. What matters is the president’s judgment and political skill.

The deep ideological divide between the Republicans and Democrats is not going to disappear with one election. So a president who wants to realize the broad goals of his or her campaign will require the judgment to decide what is politically possible—and what must be compromised—and the skill to see it through. Bipartisan appeal and the ability to work across party lines will be crucial.

From Lincoln and Teddy to FDR and Reagan, real domestic change has always come through building new coalitions. Policy nerds don’t bring real change. Only skillful politicians with a strong madate for change and broad bipartisan appeal do.

Myth 3: a president’s chief job is to set the nation’s domestic policy. This myth is nonsense for the same reasons as Myth 2. The president has only an indirect effect on domestic policy. He or she may propose changes in policy, but Congress can reject or amend them or reconfigure them entirely. A president can block Congress’ own initiatives through the veto, but that’s all that a president can do without sufficient support in Congress and sufficient political skill to find a new way or middle ground.

A president also influences domestic policy in the way he or she interprets the law, makes appointments in the vast federal bureaucracy, and oversees the rules and regulations that the federal bureaucracy makes and enforces. But legislation passed by Congress controls even the president’s power to do these things.

In domestic affairs, the president is never more than a partner with Congress. And even that partnership is subject to review by the courts.

In contrast, a president’s power is nearly supreme in the realm of foreign and military affairs. A president is commander in chief of our armed forces. As the courts have confirmed again and again, the president sets our foreign policy and controls the military and our intelligence services, subject only to general (and recently largely ineffectual) oversight by Congress.

The only real power that Congress has in these fields is the power of the purse and the Senate’s power to advise and consent to treaties. Lately Congress has exercised the purse power seldom and sparingly. In the last half-century, Congress has never asserted its explicit constitutional power to declare war, being satisfied with resolutions (like the one authorizing military action against Iraq). Only once since World War II (in the Vietnam war) has Congress cut off funding for military action ordered by the president.

The president’s primary and unique job is in the field of foreign and military affairs. He or she controls and manages our armed forces and intelligence services, monitors foreign affairs, administers foreign aid granted by Congress, negotiates treaties, international compacts and alliances, takes emergency military action when necessary, and merely reports what’s been done to Congress and the people. In these fields, our supposed democracy resembles one-person rule in many respects. And the increasing use of “fast track” authority over trade agreements has made the president’s awesome power over external affairs even stronger.

Insofar as major domestic policy initiatives are concerned, our nation could get along without a president. The majority leaders in the houses of Congress could take up the slack. But without a president our country would be a headless horseman in the field of foreign and military affairs.

Because a president has so much power—and often acts alone—in these fields, it is crucial to assess a president’s judgment and skill in exercising these executive functions. It is also vital to determine whether a president is likely to follow our Constitution and respect checks and balances. As compared to the importance of these factors, political skill in domestic affairs is a minor matter.

Myth 4: vicarious experience is real executive experience.
There is an enormous difference between observing executive decisions—even at close range—and making them.

Aides, lawyers, teachers, columnists, critics, historians, bloggers and political junkies all observe, analyze, and criticize executive decisions. But they don’t make them.

When they write a book, a memo, a column or a diatribe on a blog, there are no consequences, except perhaps for their reputations. They don’t have the responsibility for billions of dollars or thousands of lives. And they have all the time in the world to temporize and second guess their own and others’ decisions.

Real executive leaders act alone. They make decisions no one else can make, and they do so in real time. They must respond quickly to unforeseen events and emergencies. They must act without the benefit of hindsight, on incomplete or inaccurate information, and only they have responsibility for the consequences.

Good leaders have competent experts to advise them. But expert advice often diverges dramatically, and the experts themselves often have no direct experience with emerging contingencies. So real executives, whether in business, politics, or national leadership, are on their own.

A person who observes the process of executive decision making, even as a spouse, is in no different position than the thousands of aides, advisers, critics, newspaper columnists, historians, pundits, bloggers and political junkies who offer advice or dissect a decision after it was made. To suppose otherwise is to suggest that Tom Friedman, Robert Novak, Barbara Bush or Laura Bush would make a good president.

* * *

Astute readers may have noticed that these four myths all have something in common. Hillary Clinton has built her presidential campaign around them. They are the pillars of her appeal to the nation.

This fact raises some questions that all voters must answer in their minds and hearts. Can we trust the judgment of a person who has tried so mightily to convince us of things that simply are not so? Can we trust that person to level with us? Or can we expect a second Clinton Administration, if it arrives, to bring us more of the disinformation, “spin” and misjudgments that have characterized the last seven years? Can our national house stand not only divided, but on quicksand?

P.S. As for terrorism, see this post.

Irony to the Max

Speaking of judgment, did you catch the news clips of President Bush holding hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia?

There was Dubya, walking hand in hand with the king, visibly trying to keep half a step ahead. With all his characteristic frat-boy awkwardness, he was striving to show who is really boss.

If there were a Pulitzer Prize for irony, the photographer(s) should get it. The clip was so densely packed with irony that it might become a black hole.

First was the human dimension. There were two leaders enjoying a simple gesture of human affection—albeit one generally alien to our culture. The bond between oil men runs deep.

In one of the most a cynical, divisive and despicable moves in our political history, one of the two men had built his stairway to power on the backs of powerless gays. Yet there he was, holding hands with another man. Somewhere a gay man was smiling sardonically.

But that was just the beginning of irony. Our fearless president, who had won his second term selling fear of terror, was walking hand in hand with the man whose twisted regime had made terror possible.

In a decades-old Faustian bargain with their own Wahhabi Islamic extremists, the Saudi Princes have diverted their oil wealth into madrassas teaching the Koran and hate. They have done so secretly, while enjoying all the secular, non-Islamic pleasures of the West that their enormous oil wealth could buy. They even had the good sense to finance the hate-spewing madrassas in Pakistan, far from their own vulnerable regime.

So concerned were we with their black gold that we sent half a million troops halfway around the world to protect their regime (and their oil) in Gulf I. That single act—putting “infidel” troops in the Islamic Holy Land of Mecca and Medina—was the trigger for bin Laden’s conversion from obscure scion of a Saudi construction magnate into the world’s most wanted terrorist.*

It was no coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Princes financed the madrassas that provide the inspiration and ideology for terrorism, and their reliance on our military protection turned bin Laden to the Dark Side. Yet there was our president, holding hands with the symbol of an oppressive monarchy whose misguided policies created the social and political base for Al Qaeda (which means “The Base” in Arabic).

The final irony is what that awkward hand-holding has done to our national values. We pride ourselves on independence and self-reliance, at least in our national mythology. In practice, we have become oil junkies, dependent on Saudi oil to feed our gas-guzzling SUVs. So dependent are we on oil that many of us have forsaken physical exercise entirely and, in consequence, have become grossly obese.

Our own Faustian bargain with Big Oil mirrors the Saudis Princes’ Faustian bargain with Islamic extremism. They have sold their souls to extremists for a temporary and illusory peace, and we have sold our souls to them for oil.

And there was Bush, walking hand in hand with the king who personifies our national fall from grace. For a man who won the presidency by touting “values” above policy and common sense, it was the final irony and the final ignominy.

Perhaps that black hole of irony can produce something good. Maybe this year “we, the people” will rise up, buy back our souls with sweat and innovation, and begin to cast off the yoke of oil dependency. A new environmental vision can show us the way.

See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 153-161 (Alfred A. Knopf 2006)

Site Meter


  • At Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 4:55:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jay, I wish you'd cross-post this stuff as a diary on some bigger blogs, like Daily Kos. It would be surefire rec-list material, and your words deserve a very large audience.

  • At Monday, January 14, 2008 at 7:00:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…


    I've tried to post links on some mainstream media. But most don't allow anonymous posts. For reasons posted on this blog, I'd like to keep my anonymity.

    If you catch this reply, and if Daily Kos (or any other widely read blog) does allow anonymous posts, please send me a link via a comment to this blog, and I'll take your suggestion.

    (I'm also a bit reluctant to toot my own horn, but the crying need to elect Obama is overcoming my modesty.)



Post a Comment

<< Home