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Crisis and Character

The Republican convention has now been called to order, launching three days of introducing America to the real Mitt Romney. And all snarking aside, I’m one of those people who thinks character does matter quite a bit in choosing a President. But I think it matters in somewhat different ways than is usually described.

Ideologues generally think about character in terms of fortitude – will the candidate really pursue the agenda he’s “supposed” to be pursuing. But candidates don’t, generally, have a secret agenda, and to the extent that the agenda they wind up enacting is different from what they ran on, this is generally either because their own coalition was never on board, or because popular opposition is so intense. Thus: President Bush got his tax cut (big priority for his coalition) and his education bill (scrambled political categories and promised a big pot of money) but not his immigration bill (fractured his own coalition) or his Social Security privatization (massively unpopular). And: President Obama got his health-care bill (big priority for his coalition) and his stimulus bill (big pot of money and popular at the time) but not his cap-and-trade climate bill (fractured his own coalition).

Where I think Presidential character plays a greater role is in how the President responds to unexpected contingencies. President Bush, for example, responded to the September 11th attacks by preparing for war in Iraq. That choice reflected the longstanding priorities of at least one faction of his party, but his enthusiasm for the project was a product of personality factors as well. Basically, he seized the opportunity to pursue an aggressive, revisionist foreign policy, where another President might have responded more cautiously, and yet another might have seen the attacks as a sign that new thinking (rather than new action) was needed.

President Obama, meanwhile, responded to the financial crisis in what in retrospect looks like a rather jejune manner. He became convinced, early on, that monetary policy had “shot its wad,” and that his first stimulus was all he was going to get, and he was comfortable letting Congress take the lead on financial sector reform. In other words, he mostly used the financial crisis to promote the economic ideas that his party had been championing. The question, “what do we do if the economic crisis proves worse than we initially thought?” doesn’t seem to have occupied him greatly. Another President might have seized the opportunity to march forcefully leftward – or might have seen the crisis as, again, a call for radically new thinking rather than pursuing a longstanding policy agenda.

Neither of these responses should, in retrospect, surprise us, given what we knew before the election about each President’s character. Candidate Bush made it clear that he had something to prove – that he wanted to be “great,” to leave his mark on history. He also made it clear that he didn’t know very much and prized decisiveness over judiciousness. His career, from his college days through his business career to his governorship, consisted primarily of his being a cheerleader. Given all this, neither the Iraq War nor the financial crisis should be entirely surprising. Candidate Obama made it clear that he was a consensus-oriented politician who, for all the outsized enthusiasm he generated among both Democrats and some independents, lacked any real animating cause beyond his own election. Obama’s preference for letting the legislature lead on legislation, and for acting unilaterally (and preferably covertly) in foreign policy all make perfect sense when you consider his aloof, writerly temperament and his lack of legislative experience. The biggest surprise, to me, about Obama’s tenure so far has been the Libyan war, but from what I understand about how we wound up in Libya the big advocates for action were France and the UK, so this may be another instance of Obama not wanting to buck the consensus. (Arguably another surprise is how tough Obama has been on Pakistan, given how many Pakistanis he hung out with in his early years.)

So what do we know about Mitt Romney? We know the agenda a President Romney will pursue, because that agenda will be dictated by what he ran on and what his party prioritizes. If you don’t like that agenda that’s reason enough to oppose him, but how much he’ll actually get passed will be, in large part, a function of what kind of opposition he runs into in Congress. Personally, I expect him to succeed in passing a big tax cut, and to fail in voucherizing Medicare. Beyond that, what strikes me most about Romney’s background is that he is not a guy who has had to see very much through. As a businessman, he didn’t run companies – he bet that he could get money out of them (more money if they did well, of course, but LBO deals are designed so that the buyout firm retain a variety of ways to extract value even if the company goes bust). As a politician, he was a one-term governor who effectively bailed out halfway through that one term in order to prepare for a Presidential run. That could mean that he’d be cautious about taking on commitments – which would probably be a good thing. But it could also mean that he’d make lots of promises and then not keep them. Daniel Larison has long made the case that President Bush’s sloganeering encouraged recklessness on the part of the government of Georgia, leading that government into a war it could not win on the mistaken impression that America had its back. It’s not too hard to see something similar happening in between Israel and Iran in a Romney Administration.

More generally, Mitt Romney has few demonstrable political (as opposed to managerial) skills, and commands no particular loyalty. His two campaigns for the Presidential nomination have been characterized by widespread mistrust and an eagerness, on the candidate’s part, to placate critics. From my perspective, all signs point to him being a weak President. And regardless of what one thinks about his agenda, and whether or not one wishes to see a structurally weaker presidency, a weak President is, in and of itself, not an asset to the Republic, particularly not when unexpected contingencies present themselves.

President Bush was a leader who didn’t tend to ask directions before marching off in one direction or another. President Obama has a predilection for “leading from behind.” A President Romney, I suspect, would turn out to be a leader that nobody wants to follow.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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