Entry from September 29, 2008

When I first went to Britain to live, it was during the dark days of the miners’ strike and the three-day week and the two elections of 1974. It pretty swiftly became apparent to me that the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson and, later, by Jim Callaghan, was making a royal mess of things. Inflation was soaring, the unions were out of control and the country was becoming almost ungovernable. It was essentially the disaster for which Margaret Thatcher was eventually to be the remedy. Yet again and again I heard from my friends at one of the ancient British universities that the Labour front bench were far more impressive than the Tories because they had all got firsts in economics or PPE from Oxford! Such people seemed to trust to academically certified brain-power above all things, and in spite of the evidence of their own eyes that it wasn’t working.

I’m reminded of that superstition today by the absurd overvaluation of intelligence and educational credentials of the Democrats. Of course, as Heather MacDonald points out it’s always possible to go too far in the other direction, but I’m inclined to agree with Charles Murray that sheer intelligence is not only not a qualification for the highest office in the land, it may be a positive disqualification. Just look at Jimmy Carter! Yet having failed to undermine the candidacy of Sarah Palin on moral grounds, the Obamaniacs and their allies in the media are now going after her on intellectual grounds — in particular her incomprehensible answers to the even more incomprehensible questions of Katie Couric. Now Fareed Zakaria thinks it clever to pretend that he wants someone to “please put Sarah Palin out of her agony.”

You’d think these people could remember that they’ve tried this before. On the same page on which Howard Kurtz tells his readers of what a mess Governor Palin made of the Couric interview, he notes with disapproval that Paul Begala was unrepentant about having described the current president as a “high-functioning moron.” Now President Bush isn’t running for anything this year. Such absurdly hyperbolical insults have become a mere tic, a habit that they can’t break for those on the left — which is why, as Mr Begala told Mr Kurtz, “You cannot imagine the positive feedback I”ve gotten.” Oh yes I can! He acts as though the rest of us haven’t been reading the bumper stickers for the last eight years. He wouldn’t have said it if he wasn’t getting a lot of positive feedback.

But that’s just the trouble: the Begalas of the world have cried wolf too often and too frivolously. The force of the complaint, even if it were true, has been dulled by sheer repetition. It’s the same with their promiscuous and bogus charges of “lying” against the President. Now that they’re trying out the same accusations against Senator McCain, they’re finding it harder and harder to get any traction out of it. People may or may not believe that either President Bush or Senator McCain have in fact lied about something, but they are most unlikely to connect that belief, one way or another, with such charges from their political opponents. They’ve heard them too often before. So with Sarah Palin’s intelligence. She may be as thick as two short planks, as Princess Diana once said of herself, but no one not already disposed to believe so is likely to be persuaded of the fact by people for whom it is second nature to cast aspersions on the intelligence of Republicans.

Doubtless such people really do believe in their own superior intelligence, and that of the politicians who think as they do, but it’s pretty hard to point to any time in the past when Americans — as opposed to Britons — have been impressed by that argument, even if they thought it were true.


Like most people, I suspect, I am feeling equally confused about the economics of the big Wall Street bailout and about the politics of John McCain’s response to it. Those looking for enlightenment on either score won’t get much help from me. But I do notice one thing about what a lot of people are writing about both, which is that they apparently think it a simple matter to distinguish between political “theatre” or “drama” and “real” or “substantive” politics. David Brooks in The New York Times, for instance, writes of Senator McCain that “I still think of him first in the real world of governing, not in the show-business world of the election.” Nearby, the Times itself editorializes about the breakdown in talks about the bailout that “political theater was mainly responsible for the delay.” Golly! How do they figure these things out?

But politics is theatre — to be sure, of a highly specialized type — and “the real world of governing” is rarely separable from “the show-business world of the election.” John McCain understands this better than most, I believe, because as a military man he knows how much a part of leadership it is to be seen acting the leader. His critics, then, are particularly deluded in regarding debates as a serious business for the candidates and striking attitudes about the bailout as mere theatrics. It’s more like the other way around. Debates nowadays are nothing but a sort of game show, the object of the game being to mouth platitudes and anodyne or utopian solutions to dubious problems without committing what the media, who are both judges and contestants, can successfully represent as a “gaffe.” Posturing convincingly about the bailout at the right moment, by contrast, might actually get something done.

Most absurd of all is the charge that McCain is “playing politics.” My point is about the inevitability of politics in political life and the delusion of imagining they can be taken out of it, even for a moment. Politicians are like elementary particles: the fact that we are watching them, makes them behave as they do. Or, to put it another way, we have no way of knowing how they would behave if we weren’t watching them. It’s like the late Mitch Hedberg’s joke: “I’m against picketing, but I don’t have any way to show it.” Ross Douthat notes that “McCain”s gamble may be politically smart, or it may be politically stupid, but like almost everything that”s happened in this campaign since the two candidates locked up their respective nominations, it”s primarily interesting on a tactical level; its substantive import is close to nil.”

Substantive? I remember substantive! I haven’t seen it around town for about 15 years, however, ever since Bill Clinton’s first inaugural parade rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s always been true but now is truer than ever that there is no choice but to assess the candidates’ words and deeds tactically. Thus, it is undoubtedly a tactic on Senator McCain’s part to talk about “putting the country first.” Yet that doesn’t mean that that is not what he is in fact doing, or that it is not in fact for the good of his country that he is doing it. For one thing, he aspires to the presidency which will have to sign the checks and pay the bills now being contracted for, and this makes it natural for him to want to be present at the negotiations. Second, it is part of his more general theme of “leadership” and in particular his criticism of Senator Obama for speechifying without consequence. He is inviting his opponent to put his money where his mouth is and, in doing so, stoking further the widespread suspicion that the latter is all mouth.


My colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Pete Wehner reminds us of the demands of leadership that they are essentially unforeseeable. You have to be a good improviser. Both candidates have been called upon to respond to one crisis after another in recent weeks, from the vertiginous rise in the price of gasoline to the Russian invasion of Georgia to the wave of bankruptcies, takeovers and mergers on Wall Street, and none of them fit neatly into the pre-prepared campaign rhetoric that they had hoped to be campaigning on right about now. The point is

that position papers matter, speechifying matters, and debate performances matter. But instincts and intuition, judgment and character, worldview and temperament matter more. They are a good deal harder to discern in a candidate than where he stands on taxing capital gains, and sometimes qualities of greatness (or failure) are easily masked. But they are immensely important.

You’d think — or at least The New York Times would think — that this provides us, the voters, with what it calls “on-the-fly tests” of the candidates’ abilities to deal with real world problems. The financial crisis, in particular, “has turned the race between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama into an audition for who could best handle a national economic emergency.” There are no prizes for guessing which of the two candidates the Times thinks has scored the highest marks on this test, but the test itself represents, in my view, a rather low score for the Times, its reporters and editors, on a more general intelligence test.

For the candidates’ responses are not to the test of events but only to the questions of the media about what they would be doing if they were in any position to do anything — which they aren’t. Neither is really tested because neither is really doing anything that has any real world consequences. This means that — bet the Times never thought of this before! — they can essentially say anything they want to, so long as they think it will make them sound strong and decisive and impress the voters — or the media. About the financial crisis, for instance, Senator Obama can fall back on his tried and tested dirigiste mentality and put it into a context of “deregulation” — though the chief cause of the trouble, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac were not just regulated but, in essence, government controlled bodies whose corrupt practices were protected by himself and his fellow Democrats. Meanwhile, Senator McCain can call for the firing of SEC Chairman Chris Cox and his replacement by, of all people, Andrew Cuomo, without any fear that that’s actually going to happen.

I say that nothing they say has any real world consequences, but that’s not quite true. There is always the potential — at least for the Republican candidate — for saying something so stupid or impolitic that the media themselves will identify it as a “gaffe,” and that really is a test. But it is a test not of any skills that are relevant to the business of governing but only of his skills — of necessity pretty formidable, I think — of placating (or baffling) the media themselves. They are, not coincidentally, the ones triumphantly announcing to the rest of us the results of a test of how far each candidate is able to impress the media. Yet no one ever seems to reflect on how self-referential the whole thing is and how unconnected to those tests of “judgment and character” that leaders will actually face in office.



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