Inexperience Gambit, Part II

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 10/27/06

My post taking Rick Shenkman to task for extolling the virtues of the bosses in his piece on Obama has been attracting some notice.  On Tuesday, Shenkman responded to my comments in words both cordial and eloquent.  Here is what he said, in part:

Over at the interesting and stimulating blog, Progressive Historians, I have been taken to task by Nonpartisan for ridiculously implying that the bosses of old may have made sounder choices in the selection of presidents than The People do today.

Well, then the fight is on.

Say what you will about the bosses they only considered pols for the highest office who had experience. (Yes, yes, I know what you may be inclined to say: The experience consisted of taking bribes, paying off the special interests, etc. etc.) Look through the list of American presicdents selected by bosses and you’ll see they almost all seemed “presidential,” meaning they had experience in handling high stress positions in important organizations IN ADDITION TO OTHER IMPORTANT VIRTUES.

I have said before and I will say again that the bosses at least did not base their selections on the color of the hair of the candidates (though always on the color of their skin) or on their ability to tell a joke with the timing of a Johnny Carson.

I don’t want the bosses back. Good riddance, we’ve done with boss politics. (Sort of. The new bosses are the rich guys who can bankroll campaigns in the primaries and the media anchors who decide which candidates are worth covering and which aren’t.) But the bosses took the selection of presidents seriously. (Ok, ok, not with Harding’s selection but he’s the worst of the worst presidents.) I am nostalgic for the kind of seriousness with which they approached presidential politics. People today generally do not take politics seriously enough to inform themselves about the candidates’ real strengths and weaknesses. Instead they go with their gut. Their gut reaction is shaped by 30 second commercials that are shallow and misleading.

Yesterday, evidently under harsher fire than mine from writers with whom I am not familiar, Shenkman fired off this addendum:

What’s wrong with Obama’s candidacy?

It’s that the very idea of his candidacy isn’t shocking. It should be shocking to any proponent of rational governance given his meager experince. But we are so far from expecting rationality in American politics that we accept as a given that it is irrational. …

I am sure that we all ought to be thinking hard about what’s wrong with our system if serious people can suggest Obama should be taken seriously as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Again, it’s not Obama who’s the problem. It’s us. It’s us for being so desperate for idealism that we are willing to consider his candidacy seriously. And it’s us for not realizing instantly that any system that produces an Obama candidacy is seriously (insert dity [sic] word here) ______.

I want to thank Shenkman for his thoughtful responses.  As my last post on the subject was rather shrill, and Shenkman’s less so, I would like to take a moment to address some of his assertions in earnest.  For more, follow me over the flip.

First, let’s examine Shenkman’s primary claim: that boss-supported Presidents “seemed ‘presidential'” and that they had “experience in handling high-stress situations in important organizations in addition to other virtues.”  As Shenkman suggests, I have examined the list of boss-driven Presidents, and I don’t agree with Shenkman’s assessment.

I believe that we can with some certainty define the era of presidential bossism as stretching from Rutherford Hayes’ election in 1976 through Calvin Coolidge’s retirement in 1928.  For the presidentially challenged, the list is made up of the following eleven Presidents:

Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Chester Arthur
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
Grover Cleveland
William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Warren Harding
Calvin Coolidge

Of this list, we can safely exclude Wilson and Roosevelt, as in both cases their bosses were obviously inept and bad judges of character; both Presidents were clearly smarter than their erstwhile bosses and rose to power by breaking bossism, not by affirming it.  In the same category belongs Garfield, who was well on his way to becoming the ultimate boss-busting President when he was assassinated.  Taft can be excluded because he was Roosevelt’s protege rather than that of any boss, and Cleveland because he was an anti-boss candidate.  Finally, let’s remove Harding from the list, as Shenkman’s already acknowledged that his selection represented bossism at its rankest and most self-serving.

With these figures out of the way, our list can be substantially reduced:

Rutherford Hayes
Chester Arthur
Benjamin Harrison
William McKinley
Calvin Coolidge

Now let’s examine these five men as a subset of American presidents.  Truth be told, their combined record is far from distinguished.  While all of them were politically experienced in one way or another, their background did not exactly lead them to make wise, decisive choices when the going got rough.  Three of them — Hayes, Harrison, and McKinley — were part of Mark Hanna’s machine in Ohio, an organization whose corruption and corporatism were legendary.  Hayes, whose election as President was somewhat short of legitimate, participated in a shady deal with Democrats in which he bargained away the rights of Southern blacks in exchange for his own ascension as President.  Harrison signed into law the biggest corporate handout in American history, the McKinley tariff of 1890, which was authored by — you guessed it — Senator William McKinley.  McKinley, who was Hanna’s star as President, was not only a corporate hack but a spineless appeaser who entered an unnecessary war with Spain in order to make his fellow Republicans happy.  Arthur, who had come up through the civil service, was a notorious grafter who beneficially reorganized the service only because he was personally familiar with every one of its loopholes.  And Coolidge, who had served one unremarkable term as Massachusetts Governor before his election as Vice President (and in fact had only as much direct political experience as Obama will in 2008), was a rabid corporatist who broke strikes and retained the services of a Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, whose pro-business policies helped precipitate the Great Depression.

On the whole, an undistinguished and self-centered lot with a lot of bad decisions to their collective name.  And more than that while they may not have been green, they were certainly a gray bunch, incapable of leading the nation by example or policy.  Their most distinguished member, McKinley, did not lead publicly at all; he never made campaign speeches (the last of the “front porch” campaigns), leaving surrogates to spread his minimal message with varying degrees of accuracy.  To return to Shenkman’s post, I’d vote for Jimmy Carter in a heartbeat over any of these men; at least he evinced an honesty and genuine interest in the inner workings of government that men like McKinley and Arthur could not have imagined.

But Shenkman’s championship of the virtues of boss candidates is not the only questionable piece of his argument. Let’s look at his objection to the lack of “seriousness” with which modern-day voters look at the candidates, and his fear that this lack of voter gravitas will do grave harm to the American political process.  I agree with the first part: it’s a shame that Americans don’t approach politics with more of an interest than can be satisfied by the latest thirty-second commercial.  (Though one could argue that sound-bite politics is nothing new: the ads have simply replaced the old chants of “Van, Van, he’s a used-up man” and “Rumpsey-dumpsey, rumpsey-dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”)  But I don’t believe there is a corresponding link with bad government or bad decision-making on the part of the people.

On the old television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which I think is off the air now, each contestant was given three so-called “lifelines” to help them answer questions.  (Hey, if Shenkman can quote Paul Weyrich, I get to cite Regis Philbin.)  The three lifelines could be selected by the contestants in any order, or they could be used in combination.  One lifeline was a phone call to any one of three experts, pre-selected by the contestant; another was a computer elimination of half the wrong answers; and the third called for a vote of the studio audience.  In essence, the expert represents the sort of informed decision-making Shenkman attributes to the bosses, while the audience, given all of thirty seconds to choose from among four answers, stands in for the sound-bite-informed votes cast by the apathetic masses Shenkman criticizes.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, that when Millionaire contestants ran up against their first tough choice, they selected “ask the audience” by an overwhelming majority.  Next came the computerized answer reduction, followed by the expert, who was frequently wrong or unhelpful.  Furthermore, unlike the hapless experts, the audience virtually always selected the correct answer by a wide plurality.

These results make intuitive sense, if you think about them a little.  A person who doesn’t know the correct answer has four possible choices to mark, while one who knows the correct answer has only one.  Thus, no matter how low the percentage of the audience that knows the correct answer, it is highly unlikely that any one wrong answer will get more votes than the right one.  The system thus has a built-in infallibility that far exceeds the ability of even the most sophisticated “expert”.

While guessing the correct trivia answer is a far cry from intuiting presidential character, I would argue that the same sort of structural infallibility is built into the democratic process.  The electorate can certainly be duped — in fact, it happens on a regular basis.  Yet the populace has historically shown a remarkable ability to correct its own mistakes.  The regular switching of control between the two major parties, the overall moderacy of American government over the centuries, are testament to the skill of the populace in this regard.  In fact, the only situations in American history when political moderation has been seriously threatened have occured when the pool of voting Americans was somehow truncated — when unreconstructed Southern states were excluded from the voting process during the Johnson administration, for example, or when Southern Dixiecrats browbeat African-Americans from the voting booth.

Throughout the centuries, the people’s wisdom has been undeniable.  And today, the people can see something Shenkman cannot — that Obama’s age-defying maturity more than compensates for his inexperience, and more importantly, for the juvenility of the current crop of political heavyweights.  There is more than one kind of experience, and different types are needed at different times; the people, while imperfect and easily confused, know better than any boss what type of leadership they need.  While individuals cannot, perhaps, make intelligent decisions based on sound-bite politicking, the people as a whole can.  Shenkman’s comments, once again, betray an instinctual distrust and underestimation of the people.

Finally, I think it’s worth a mention that I am reading Obama’s book right now, and I am NOT impressed.  His message seems to be the tired “transcending partisanship with policy” instead of the transformational “transcending policy for ideals” of McCain.  It’s Dick Morris-style triangulation under the guise of transformational leadership, and it will tie Obama down with centrist policy instead of freeing him to pursue a visionary progressive agenda.  There’s no audacity in cleaving to the center like a scared rabbit, and if Obama’s style comes up against McCain’s “cause greater than oneself,” I’m almost certain who will win.

But that’s not because Obama lacks experience; indeed, as wu ming says, it may be because the Senator has too much.


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