Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 20, 2004
POLITICS: Principled Positions
Tim Noah, like Jonah Goldberg, thinks Howard Dean's problem as a candidate was that he was a phony who didn't really believe in his own left-wing campaign rhetoric. Both of them cite his more (comparitively) moderate record as Vermont governor. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, argues that Dean's undistilled leftism and confrontational style made him "the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater."
I think the Journal is closer to the truth, and there's an important point here about politicians and their convictions. The charge against Dean sometimes focuses on the idea that his strong anti-war and tax-hiking stands were calculated postures based on his assessment of the mood of the Democratic electorate in 2003. Kevin Drum has repeatedly made the same charge against Bush. Now, it's fair game to point to inconsistencies in a man's record and ask whether he really believes what he says. But in a representative democracy, it's not necessarily fatal to hire leaders who echo what we want them to say, rather than what they'd do if they had their druthers. Many of our individual druthers, after all, aren't so well thought-out.
No, what matters more than anything is not a politician's fealty to his own internal principles but his ability to take a principled position and stick to it, whether he believes in it or not. Regardless of its sincerity, Howard Dean's positions on Iraq and on the Bush tax cuts were principled positions: he made sure everyone knew precisely where he stood, he made all the arguments for those positions as forcefully as he could, and he left himself no wiggle room to back away if those positions were rejected by the voters or if (as happened with the capture of Saddam) his principled position was discredited by subsequent events. What we look for in leaders, especially presidents, is that ability: the willingness to say, "here I stand," let the voters judge the merits of that stand, and keep faith with your promises, even when the going gets rough.
That doesn't mean that you can never compromise; even a principled advocate can judge when to settle for the best deal that's going to come. Think of John McCain's approach to campaign finance reform or Ted Kennedy's approach to universal government-provided health insurance, both clear examples of principled positions where (like the results or not) a legislator staked out a position and made things happen by tireless advocacy and leadership.
Part of what made Bill Clinton so frustrating to deal with was his allergy to principled positions, the difficulty of pinning him down on issues. But even Clinton took principled stands on occasion -- sometimes by using his popular mandate to enact campaign promises like the Family and Medical Leave Act, sometimes by bucking his own party for the good of the economy (as with NAFTA and GATT), and, in the case of HillaryCare, pushing a principled stand far beyond the point where prudence counseled compromise.
Love him or hate him, President Bush has similarly taken a series of principled positions, albeit with exceptions (as where he abandoned many of his principles on the education bill and threw them overboard on McCain-Feingiold). In dealing with the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Bush was unyielding in pursuit of our objectives, even in the face of many objections and obstacles along the way. On tax cuts, Bush has consistently staked out clearly understood objectives -- there's no question that Bush's campaign got out in front of public demand for tax cuts and that the public identifies Bush with that position -- and pushed for as much of his proposed cuts as he could get. Bush's positions on Social Security, the Medicare prescription drug bill, judicial nominees, the faith-based initiative -- you can fault his objectives or the degree of his follow-through, but you can't doubt where Bush stands and that he's been willing to weather criticism from many corners without changing course.
Which brings us to the core of the problem with John Kerry. As Will Saletan has put it:
Kerry's more fundamental problem is his tendency to try to have everything both ways, chiefly by rigging his answers with caveats. He approaches political questions the way soldiers approach urban warfare: He never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out.
This is Kerry's core problem. Try to cite back part of Kerry's voting record, and he'll cite votes going the other way. War with Iraq? Voted against the first one but said some good things about it, voted for the second one and campaigned against it, voted in between for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Voted for the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind and NAFTA, campaigned against all three. Campaigned strenuously for Kyoto, but voted for the anti-Kyoto resolution in the Senate. Opposes drilling in ANWR, but wants the unions to know he's OK with it. Opposes gay marriage, but voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. . . . you get the picture. It's not that Kerry doesn't necessarily have principles; clearly, his instincts are quite liberal, as he's often shown and as his voting record tilts. But there's never been any point in John Kerry's career when, as many another legislator has done, he took an issue, made it his own, and declared to all the world: here I stand, come with me. Dean's not the only loser who got his way; in recent memory, Steve Forbes and Ross Perot also did much to shape the public agenda by taking stands on issues and forcing other candidates to deal with their ideas. But even if John Kerry wins, for what has he ever shown he would fight without backing down, come whatever grief may come his way?
UPDATE: More here on John Kerry's Principled Positions.