Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What do we want in a president?

Lawrence Lindsey asks and answers the question in today's Wall Street Journal. Key graphs:

As president, there is a lot to learn both factually and about the process of governing. Beginning on day one, he or she will have to confront a bureaucracy and a media establishment that has its own agenda, to hire expert advisers and administrators on a whole host of foreign and domestic policy issues, and to structure the whole operation in a way that carries out the will of the people. Our job as voters should be to select someone who will (1) know what he or she doesn't know, (2) get up to speed quickly, and (3) avoid making serious mistakes in the meantime. ...

First, has the candidate faced a crisis or overcome a major setback in his or her life? A president's first crisis will teach two important lessons. The first is that bad things happen, in fact they happen on a regular basis. The second is that the real power of the office to affect, let alone control, events is far less than imagined. If the occupant of the Oval Office has faced this double whammy--encountering a tragedy involving events over which he or she has had little control, yet finding a way to persevere--the new president is far more likely to succeed.

Harry Truman, who made some of the toughest decisions of any president, overcame business failure. Teddy Roosevelt lost his first wife after childbirth. On the other hand, someone who got straight A's, never got turned down for a date, was never fired from a job or defeated in an election, is going to have a very rude awakening. The average voter can research this personal history quite easily.

Second, has the candidate had a variety of life experiences? The presidency is a job for a generalist. You never know what direction a crisis will come from: foreign threats, economic calamity, civil unrest. It might even be a biological pandemic that involves all three at the same time.

A variety of life experiences or careers helps a person to understand that actions which make sense in one framework may have unintended consequences elsewhere. It also increases the chances that a president will think creatively and not get boxed in, and gain control of events rather than be controlled by them.
By contrast, someone who has only been an elected official is likely to interpret problems only in a political context. Again, whether a candidate has had a variety of experiences is something the average voter can easily discern.

Third, can the candidate tell the difference between a foreign enemy and a political opponent? A certain degree of ruthlessness is a necessary attribute for any successful CEO or president. But our liberty, which is ultimately our nation's greatest resource, requires that a president restrain this trait when acting domestically.

We should seek an individual who is ruthless about protecting us against others, but acts with charity toward all and malice toward none at home: a tall order. But this trait comes out on the campaign trail, and in the past job performances of the candidates. We should opt for candidates who are ruthless in debating real public policy issues but steer away from attacking the personal traits of their opponents.

I can't say we disagree with him. It makes a lot of sense, and the balancing act that presidents have to work on, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it's a sure thing that the next four years aren't going to be a smooth ride. This nation is still at war; the status of one of our allies doesn't look good in Pakistan; the economy is having it's share of hiccups that have more than a couple concerned; the polarization of the nation continues; federal fiscal matters must be resolved, namely reigning in the out-of-control spending.

How will the person we choose perform? Our hopes are that they will learn the "on-the-job training" Mr. Lindsey alludes to. No man has ever entered that office completely and totally sure of himself, the world, and the political landscape. Every president has had to do his fair share of dancing while in office.

I would like to add one more prerequisite to Mr. Lindsey's list: Longevity. Anyone recall what President Reagan, President Clinton, or the current President Bush looked like when they first entered office. I do. I recall three men that looked like they had all the energy in the world. By the end of the Reagan and Clinton years, you could see that the years wore on both men. Both entered office with dark hair, and by the end the hair was going grey, if not majority grey. We are seeing the same thing with President Bush. All three men made it to the end, but you can see what eight years in office -- with all of the problems that the office delivered to their doorstep daily -- will do to even the strongest men.

(And no, I'm not being sexist. Hillary, in our opinion, has no chance of winning. Her negatives are too high, and the last four months haven't been kind to her. She's listing like the Titanic. Her newest adplea to Iowa voters read like a laundry list of Marx's favorite talking points, and it does little to help her there. Though it's already being murmured in Democrat circles that if she doesn't win in Iowa, they're prepared to say they "expected" that. Nice spin, but spin doesn't work well for presidents either because America's not stupid.)

Publius II


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