Monday, August 17, 2009

Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan is a very smart woman. She has figured out that Barack Obama is, in her words, "brilliant at becoming president but not being president." She goes on to add, "Actually a lot of them are like that these days." Here's the thing, Mrs. Noonan. A person running for president can say virtually anything. He can oppose every policy of the man sitting in office, assure the electorate that he will correct every public ill, swear up and down that he will bring a new spirit of bipartisanship to the office. He can do this because he has no record as president to demonstrate what he will actually do. Once he becomes president, it is an entirely different matter. Suddenly, shutting down Guantanamo prison isn't so simple; suddenly, withdrawing our troops from Iraq involves complications. Whether the candidate willfully ignored these problems, or was honestly ignorant of them, doesn't matter. The point is that his promises run up against reality, and he has to change his course. I'll give one example: his promise to go through the budget, "line by line," and eliminate earmarks. This is a noble goal, and, if he actually does it, I will praise Barack Obama as a true visionary. Given, however, that not even members of Congress read the budget all the way through, and given how entrenched earmarks are in our system, I will be astounded if this actually happens. It's easy to say, and everyone likes it, but it is very, very hard to do.

Ideally, no one would get elected running on impossible promises; unfortunately, no one gets elected running on reasonable ones. If you want to know how someone will behave in office, your best guide is not what he says he will do, but what he has done in the past. That's why it's helpful if the person has actually been in politics for awhile, and has a record that one can look at. Peggy Noonan asserts that there are certain "things one always wants people currently rising in government to know deep in their heads and hearts." How is one to judge whether they know these things deeply, or if they are just saying them? Electing a one-term senator whose term isn't half over when he begins running for president deprives you of any way of knowing what he will do as president. Those who, like Peggy Noonan, listen to the rhetoric of presidential candidates over their actual record are doomed to elect people who are brilliant at becoming, rather than being, president. They know all the right buttons to press to get in office, but they don't necessarily know what to do once the hard decisions come up. Some of us already had an idea of this last year, when Noonan was telling us how wonderful Obama was.

I've heard some people advocate changing our current laws so that a president could only serve for one six-year term. Instead of that, I wonder if they shouldn't be limited to one four-year term at a time. They could still run again, just not consecutively. If you were choosing a president among two candidates, both of whom had served before, there would be less of the mystery of what they would do when in office. There truly is nothing like being president; no one knows how someone will handle the job. One supposes that there are certain things that only a president and a few top advisors even know; who can guess what national security secrets constrain a president's actions in ways that he can't tell the electorate? Having two former presidents running for office would have a lot of advantages in giving the electorate more information about what it was voting for. I would even suggest that a two- or three-year term might be better. The Romans made do with one-year terms for their consuls. That might be too little considering the size of the United States (even granted all the communications advantages we have now), but I don't see anything fundamentally implausible about two-year terms. The president would have plenty of time to act, and the people would have an early enough occasion to turn him out of office if it saw fit.

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