Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Candidate Ratings, Hillary Is Toast Edition

Seems like Hillary's squeaker in Indiana and utter drubbing in North Carolina effectively ends the Democratic nomination race.

Having acknowledged that, it's time to re-evaluate the head-to-head matchup between McCain and Obama. I think I need to construct a new matrix of issues and attributes for each of the two candidates. The list is roughly grouped along personal attributes, political skills, political philosophy, candidates' positions on the issues, and a few miscellaneous intangibles:
  • Personal Attributes. It's hard to understand how much a candidate's character factors into presidential job performance. I think that history will bear out that almost all Presidents rise to the occaision in a crisis. Certainly character and temperment are important to management style. Overall, I'd rather have somebody of bad character and good political philosophy and skills, but I'd rather have somebody of good character if their skills were good and their philosophy was bad. In the end, I tended to weight character fairly low.

    1. Able to Hear Criticism. Can you disagree with the candidate and keep your job? Do they acknowledge when they're wrong?

    2. Subtlety. What we used to call "nuance" when we talked about Kerry. Politics and, even more so, statecraft, are wheels within wheels within wheels. Seeing the unintended consequences is important.

    3. Leadership. This is either everything or nothing, depending on the times. But if you can't stand up and make the people believe in you, you can't get anything done.

    4. Courage. Closely tied to leadership. You've got to be able to deliver bad or unpopular news. You have to stick by what you believe when the political or international picture is so murky you can't see your shaking hand in front of your face.

    5. Perseverence. Nothing goes right the first time you propose something. There's always somebody gunning for you. If you don't stick with it, you'll get nowhere.

    6. Honesty. Highly overrated in a President. It's a job requirement to lie convincingly when it's in the national interest. Unfortunately, you have to be able to distinguish the national interest from your own political interests.

    7. Self-sacrifice. Which brings us to our next category. Venality is a very poor trait in a President. If he won't take one for the team, we don't need him.

    8. Openness and/or Lack of Spin. Sometimes, secrecy is important but most of the time letting the electorate know what you're doing and how it's going is a good idea.

    9. Consistency. Again, highly overrated. Consistency in politics translates roughly to "I am never wrong." Still, it's nice to have a guiding philosophy.

  • Political Skills. This is by far the most important category. However, will the candidate use his powers for good or evil? (See personal attributes, above.)

    1. Pragmatism. Doing what works is always better than doing what you think is right. See the entire Bush Administration for a cautionary example.

    2. Legislative Competence. Since I tend to think that fewer laws are better laws, I don't weight this one very highly. Still, when you really, really need to get something done, you really, really need to get it right. Note the difference between writing a law--something at which McCain wins the prize as All-Time Worst Legislator--and ramming something through, something at which he's quite good. As President, ramming is more important than writing.

    3. Statesmanship. This is one of the areas where a President has day-to-day impact and can have historical significance. The President's ability to see into the maze of twisty passages, all alike that is the international scene, is essential.

    4. Communication Skills. Even more important than statesmanship. If you can't explain what you're doing, you can't lead. Again, cf. the Bush Administration for what not to do.

    5. Coalition Building. Goes along with legislative competence. Nice, but not essential.

  • Political Philosophy Yup, there's a section for ideology. If you're President and you have one, the coherence of your vision can magnify your effectiveness, sometimes. If you're President and you don't have one, you're Bill Clinton.

    1. Gradualism. I've taken Obama to task on this recently here, here, and here. I think this is highly correlated with pragmatism. Since I've given Obama a hard time on this, I think it's fair to say that McCain is no great shakes in this area either. McCain likes legislation that's "comprehensive." Think of campaign finance reform. Think of immigration reform. Better to pass a few obvious things that everybody agrees on than to go for the Grand Futile Gesture.

    2. Hawkishness. No, this does not mean "bomb everyone if that look funny at you." It does mean that international respect is tied to a certain degree of fear, and that fear can be best converted to respect when the President is consistent and unafraid in his use of force.

    3. Small Government. Usually better than heavyweight government. But let's acknowledge that there are some things that the feds can do that the states or the private sector can't. Not many, but some.

    4. Secularism. This one took a beating in the Bush Administration. Religion and policy of any form make a very bad combination.

  • Issues. Look, issues are important. It's just that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. I'd rather have somebody who's flexible than the World's Greatest Policy Wonk. But issues are ultimately the currency of an election. If you start out hating somebody's position on the issues, you're probably not going to like their Presidency...

    1. Energy. ...and then, forget what I just said when it comes to energy. This is the issue of our time. If we get our energy policy right in the next ten years, we get to remain a modern society. If not, well, things will be interesting. I would elect the vilest, most divisive, most self-serving political hack if I thought he'd execute a decent energy policy. Unfortunately, neither Obama nor McCain have hit a home run on this. Hell, I'd settle for a stand-up double.

    2. Debt Reduction. The current US debt level has finally risen to the point where it's a national security issue. Neither candidate is paying much attention to this, but at least McCain's heart is in the right place.

    3. Healthcare. It's an impossible problem that will eventually work itself out. I like McCain's basic idea to pry insurance coverage away from employers and move it individuals--although I also agree with Clinton's critique that the way from here to there is awfully painful, maybe even too painful. I also like that McCain understands that insurance is, you know, insurance. It's not a free lunch. But I do think that Obama's proposal to mandate guaranteed enrollment has merit.

    4. Iraq. Look, we're there. Get over it. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a good idea. It certainly wasn't a good idea to have three years of incompetent happy-talk. But this idea of concentrating the Iraqi's minds by informing them that they'll be hanged in 18 months is just insane. We have to stabilize the situation, then draw down, because it doesn't work doing it the other way around. Guaranteeing the flow of oil from the Gulf is the only iron-clad, 100%, accept-no-substitutes, sacrifice everything else if need be, US foreign policy requirement. Risking that supply is a non-starter. I actually think that Obama knows this. It's a shame he's being forced to lie. It's going to make a lot of people very angry when he starts acting like a grownup.

    5. Terrorism. Odd, you just don't hear much about this any more. Maybe it's because we and our allies have hurt Al Qaeda and Hizbollah pretty hard in the last two years. Maybe it's just because we've gone back to failing to imagine the next attack. Either way, if it's not Al Qaeda, it'll be somebody else. Technology marches on even while insanity remains the same. The first duty of the US (well, maybe the second duty, after guaranteeing an energy supply) is to prevent tens of thousands of its innocent citizens from being killed. It ain't sexy. Sometimes it's ugly. It's really important to get it right and keep it right.

    6. Financial Regulation. Yup, the investment banks went overboard. Yup, lending and leveraging standards have to be tweaked. Let's not go overboard, though.

    7. Free Trade. It works. It's a win-win. 'Nuff said.

    8. Judicial Restraint. I'm a moderate on this. I'd rather have the Supreme Court striking down laws rather than making new ones, but there's a fine line. I'd settle for de-politicizing the Supreme Court and making sure that its justices remember that, while the constitution leaves them largely unfettered, it's bad when peasants with torches and pitchforks storm the building.

    9. Science. Bush's record on this isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be, but it could be a lot better. It should be better. Since science and energy development go hand-in-hand, we need to pay attention.

  • Other Stuff. And finally, a couple of intangibles.

    1. Divided Government. Legislation should not be dramatic. Legislation should be boring. Grownups bickering in public about minutiae is aggravating and makes one wonder about the decline of Western Civilization. But it's the right way to get legislation done. Since the Democrats are going to dominate both houses of Congress, it'd be nice to have a grumpy old Republican telling them "No!" a whole lot.

    2. Gut Feel. Accept no substitutes. Just think long and hard before feeling.
With no further ado, here's the latest spreadsheet. Note that, just for grins and giggles, I put my impression of Bush's performance down, too.

And so the long grind begins. I suspect that the media is about to have political attention-deficit disorder for a couple of months. Can't say that it won't be a bit of relief.

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