David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012
What I Want in My Next President

I haven't written about them lately, but I've been watching the Republican candidates for president for quite a while, pondering what I want in a candidate and a president this year, and considering how they measure up.

LBB has been relentless. I thought I might finish this post in time for the Iowa caucuses, or at least Presidents Day, which might have been appropriate -- or Mardis Gras, which might have been more so. I even missed February 25, International Sword Swallowers Day, but perhaps that's a bit on the nose, even if Mitt Romney has promised not to set his hair on fire. Now it's already Super Tuesday and the third day of National Procrastination Week, so shall we get on with it?

Here's what I've been thinking about possible replacements for President Obama in 2012. As I list things I want in a candidate, I'll tell you some things I like and don't like about the surviving candidates and some of the others. These are personal thoughts and impressions, accummulated over months, years, and even decades. Apologies in advance, if you think I misunderstand or abuse your candidate.

Executive Experience in Government

I want a candidate with Mitt Romney's, Jon Huntsman's, or Rick Perry's executive experience in government. The Oval Office is not an entry-level executive position, and President Obama's utter lack of such experience, when he took office, has been a major problem. Given a choice, I probably would have preferred Huntsman or Perry to Romney on this point. They have longer experience as governors, but are no longer in the race.

Experience in the Real Economy

It's not just that our current chief executive is waging war on the private sector, which he doesn't understand, and where he's never had to hold down a job or make payroll. It's that he considers this lack of experience and insight a strength. You can tell, because nearly all of his cabinet is just like him. They haven't worked in the productive economy, either -- with astonishingly few exceptions, even for a Democratic administration.

I want a candidate with Mitt Romney's experience in the real economy, that is, with a solid, high-level understanding of how wealth is created and destroyed. This should confer a robust immunity to soft-headed foolishness about (for example) preserving jobs being more important than staying in business, or bailing out unions being a solution, not more of the problem.

I want someone who not only can do the math, but who understands why the math must be done. Such a leader is equipped to face hard facts about unsustainable deficits and entitlements, and the impossibility of correcting our woes by taxing the rich back to the Stone Age. Among the non-Romneys, at least Huntsman grew up around the real economy, and Rick Santorum seems to have accumulated some insights in the process of studying for his MBA. Newt Gingrich knows his free market stuff and can argue it very well, but has also proven himself quite willing to throw economic freedom under his campaign bus.

Speaking of doing the math, it's easy to tell who's serious about deficit reduction and who isn't. The serious ones, Ron Paul among them, insist on cutting trillions in the short term. The frivolous ones, including the incumbent, promise relatively insignificant cuts spread over several years or more, in exchange for terabucks of new spending now.

Electoral Record

I'd love to see a Republican nominee who can actually win a national election. None of the candidates has won one, but there is relevant data. Paul and Gingrich haven't won anything larger than a congressional district. Perry and Huntsman have won multiple statewide elections, which is good, but neither is in the race now, and in any case they won in conservative states. Happily, the leading candidates, Romney and Santorum, have both won statewide elections in "blue" states.

Encyclopedia Newt

I want a candidate with Newt's encyclopedic knowledge of history, geography, and policy -- in which attribute he contrasts starkly with President Obama and some Republicans who have already left the race. Regrettably, in this election's field of candidates, I can only get this quality in Newt or maybe Ron Paul . . . so I'm not going to get it.

Ah, Newt. I've watched his career, sometimes with appreciation and sometimes in utter frustration, for nearly three decades, since I first met him in Washington in 1983, when he was a third-term congressman. He's a fascinating character, a brilliant, articulate visionary with an unfortunate tendency to self-destruct when he tries to navigate the messy real world. I'd prefer him to the current leading citizen of Pennsylvania Avenue, but I'd really rather not have a genius president with one foot in the Oval Office and the other in Cloud Cuckoo Land, or wherever the Other Newt hangs out between engagements. (I mean speaking engagements, but, really, you're very funny!)

I am comfortable with my president having a somewhat outsized ego; he or she has want to become president in order to be president. But I don't want one whose bedrock principle, apparently trumping all others, is that he should be president, and everything else is negotiable. So, no walking encyclopedia this year. I'll have to settle for a candidate with some openness to history and a compatible sense of my nation's place in the world. Romney and Santorum clear this lower bar.

Nothing Resembling Innocence Abroad

I'd like a candidate with Jon Huntsman's experience and sensibilities in foreign policy and trade policy, but there isn't one left in the race. Neither Romney nor Santorum has a strong foreign policy resume, but Romney's Olympic experience and Santorum's time in the US Senate are useful and relevant. I suspect both are smart enough to understand their limitations in this area and get some highly qualified people to advise them. For his part, Newt might be an excellent foreign policy president, or he might not, depending on which Newt showed up for which meeting.

I don't rate Ron Paul highly here. As compatible as some of his views are with my own, I think his isolationist foreign policy would be nearly as disastrous in the long term as President Obama's systematic approach of offending our allies, bowing to our enemies, and apologizing to everyone in between.

A Spine, but No Disciples

I'd like someone with Ron Paul's ability to resist conventional Washington wisdom -- but I want it in a person who attracts supporters, not followers. We have a free nation to revive from its socialist stupor. We need a president who will draw in as many Americans as possible to support each facet of that liberation. This requires less ideology and more practicality, not the reverse; too many of the Americans we need on board will be turned off by ideology, if it is front and center.

The other three remaining candidates have their ideologies, but I'm more confident in their ability to function without too much overt and counterproductive ideological baggage.

A Dash of Humility and a Megadose of Reality

I'd like a president who thinks truth and wisdom, or at least their practical applications in human affairs, are not always self-evident; who places a premium on intellectual tolerance; and who often looks to discussion and debate as a route to good decisions, not simply a way of testing someone's orthodoxy. I want someone who understands that doubt and dissent often come from something other than stupidity or malice. I want someone mature enough in government to comprehend that political compromise is not necessarily moral compromise, and that winning something is generally better than winning nothing, when winning everything is not an option.

All the remaining candidates may fit this description; I don't know that any of them doesn't. So I suppose what I'm really saying is that I want voters who think this way. They will be less inclined to destroy the possible good because it varies in some measure from an impossible ideal.

Not Exactly a Philosopher

I'm not sure a philosopher would be well suited to the Oval Office, though I used to hope that William Bennett would run. But one of the things that has drawn me to Rick Santorum for years is the fact that, whenever I hear him talk, he makes sense. When he talks at length, he still makes sense. I don't agree with his every position, but he connects his principles with each other, balances them reasonably against each other, and connects them to policy positions in such a way that, as far as it is possible in real politics, it all forms a rational, reasonably well integrated whole.

Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman barely twitched the needle on this meter during their campaigns. Rick Perry did a little better. But he and even Tim Pawlenty usually sound to me as if they've pulled a few stock conservative convictions off the shelf which appeal to themselves and the voters, but haven't really thought through things systematically and made connections. I'm not saying they aren't sincere or passionate or smart; I'm just saying that I don't see in them a particular sort of intellect which I value. Ronald Reagan had it.

Newt would get a high rating here, except for the fact that he can (and will) conjure up and passionately articulate -- if it is politically convenient -- a system of thought that is internally consistent, but in which he does not deeply believe.

Ron Paul's thinking is well integrated. I'm just not a libertarian.

Mitt Romney sometimes gets close enough here that I think there might be hope.

You'll Have Some Questions

You'll have some questions about what I've written here -- and what I haven't written. Many of these questions will begin, "But what about . . . ," and will divide naturally into two categories.

There are things I value very much in my candidates, but haven't mentioned, because I am satisfied that all will offer them to a significant degree, though not identically. When I shop for a car, I don't make too much of a fuss about wanting a four-cylinder engine if all the cars I'm considering have four-cylinder engines.

And there are things which seem very important to others, about which I simply do not care enough to give them any weight in the present election. You don't quibble about a few scratches in a car's paint when the engine's on fire, the transmission is half a mile back on the highway, and you're standing in a puddle of coolant.

Next time, I'll itemize these unmentioned categories and venture some thoughts about where the race will go and where I'd like it to go. I'll tell you whom I support and how strongly.

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