Saturday, September 22, 2007

Enough already...

OK, let’s see. We have, what, another year and change before we can vote on this? To look at the paper you’d think the presidential election was next month. Every other day there’s a debate, every other day somebody else throws his hat in the ring. Thompson’s in, Gilmore’s out (raise your hand if you ever knew he was in), Hilary’s not woman enough and Barack isn’t black enough, Mitt’s for the surge and Rudy’s for guns. Snore.
Other countries manage to pull off elections for the top spot in a matter of weeks. In a parliamentary system it’s a brisk, well-choreographed procedure. Here it’s a two-year death march. Maybe three.
I don’t know what can be done about it. You can’t forbid people to campaign; that would be a restriction of free speech. You can try and police how and from whom and how much money they raise, and you can get indignant about states moving their primaries farther and farther from the general election in a fatuous race to be first, but when it gets right down to it you can’t stop the ambitious and the wealthy and the deluded from launching what are nowadays essentially permanent campaigns.
Does this agonizing baby-kissing marathon make our democracy better? Does it produce stronger candidates, promote more thorough discussion of issues? Don't make me laugh. There’s a ruthless process of elimination, for sure. It weeds out the inadequately funded quite effectively. That means we’re left with candidates who know they have I.O.U.’s coming due, because not even Mitt Romney’s rich enough to fund a whole presidential campaign all by himself. The Darwinian process of a U.S. presidential campaign reliably produces candidates who are masters of horse-trading, back-stabbing and lip-zipping. The political process produces superb politicians.
The trouble is, they don’t always bring policy-making skills and insights along with them, and that’s what good government requires.
My standards for a U.S. president are actually fairly low. I have realistic expectations. I don’t need a genius. Reagan showed us that you can be an intellectual mediocrity and change the direction of the country, if you know how to delegate and nap. Clinton showed us you can preside over prosperity and positive social changes with dubious levels of personal integrity. (My expectations are a little higher than the current occupant of the White House, but I’m not going to pile on. There are enough people on the Bush beat already.)
What do you need to be a good U.S. president? First, I think you need firm principles that you can articulate clearly and keep sight of through the fog of war, even if it’s only political war. Oh, and they should be the right principles, too, did I mention that? Good means more than just effective. What are the right principles? Here’s where we might quibble a bit, but I think most of us will agree that the reason our country has always had more people trying to get in than trying to get out has something to do with high levels of economic, political and social freedom.
Second, a president has to be a competent administrator. This cannot be over-emphasized. It’s an administrative job. It’s delegating, hiring and firing, prioritizing, information-gathering and decision-making under pressure. Not everybody has these skills. Not even everybody who wants to be president has these skills. We should take a hard look at the field with an eye to who has high-level executive experience and who doesn’t.
Third, a good president has to be a salesman. He or she has the world’s biggest bully pulpit, and a president can shape the debate like nobody else. A good president can make us think about the world differently.
Sadly, most of the candidates are best at the third requirement. They wouldn’t be in politics if they weren’t great salesmen. But that’s not enough.
What are the chances we’ll get a good president out of this depressing cattle call? Slim, I’d say, going on past form. But you never know. Every once in a while somebody survives the process who actually fills the bill. We can always hope.
In the meantime, I’m already tired of these mopes. Wake me up next November.

Sam Reaves

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