The choice between two styles, no substance
: John F. Harris in Sunday’s Washington Post gives us a smart and even balanced analysis of the leadership styles of Bush and Kerry.
It leaves out one judgment critical to deciding between the two: competence. There are plenty of questions about both men on that scale and if you believe neither can afford to lose the war against America, then that’s what it’s really all about; that’s the real gamble.
Nonetheless, here’s a view that’s close to the mark:
Back last summer, John F. Kerry made an observation that struck him and his partisans as so self-evidently true it could hardly be disputed. The Democratic nominee said the U.S. intervention in Iraq so far has done more to recruit terrorists than to defeat them.
President Bush reacted with a disdain and disbelief that no one who heard it could doubt was genuine. “I don’t think they need an excuse for their hatred and their evil hearts. You do not create terrorists by fighting back; you defeat the terrorists by fighting back.”
Or these days, you’d think Bush would say, you defeat the terrorists by fighting first. But I interrupt:
There, in that exchange, was the 2004 election in miniature. There are two leaders who agree the world is a dangerous place, but disagree radically about the nature of history’s test and the brand of leadership it demands. A mind that sees complexities and unintended consequences? Or one that understands the primitive nature of a new war, and is prepared to match the enemy’s determination with his own?
A fair description, I thought. And it continued:
The result is a campaign in which the people on different sides of the fault line seem to be living in alternate realities, unable to agree on even basic facts. One group perceives Bush as one of the great visionaries of recent U.S. history, another as one of its most extravagant failures.
Again, I’d add competence as a layer: Was the aftermath in Iraq competently executed by Bush? Can Kerry do it any better? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. In this roulette wheel, you choose between red and blue.
Bush and Kerry, according to some scholars of leadership, both have a rhetorical problem: Their style of speaking often highlights the defects rather than the advantages of their different approaches.
James MacGregor Burns, a presidential biographer…, said many of the successful presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, have been improvisers. But Kerry, unlike Roosevelt, has not been able to articulate that his occasional shifts rest on a “set of broader principles,” he said.
The result is what Burns regards as an unfair perception that Kerry is motivated by “expediency and shiftiness.”
Renshon believes that Bush suffers from the same problem in reverse. The biographer strongly rejects the view held by many Bush critics that the president is simply not very intelligent, but acknowledges that he is not drawn naturally to the details of policy in the fashion of Clinton or Kerry.
Bush is “much more interested in leadership than governing,” Renshon said. But with his guttural style, “he does not articulate his premises well.”
But, of course, some presidents can do both. Clinton did. I was not his fan but I could agree that Reagan did. I’d sure take that choice over this one.
: And I’d take that election-eve analysis over what I’ve read so far in the Sunday Times.
Thomas Friedman, who has not regained his stride since his leave and since he started doubting the Bush Iraq strategy he once enthusiastically endorsed, now writes a cloying column endorsing Bush — Bush the senior — and arguing without daring to say so that Kerry is Bush Sr.’s actual heir. Talk about damning with faint praise.
And Frank Rich, who has not recovered from leaving the theater beat, still tries to turn politics into a play:
No president has worked harder than George W. Bush to tell his story as a spectacle, much of it fictional, to rivet his constituents while casting himself in an unfailingly heroic light. Yet this particular movie may have gone on too long and have too many plot holes. It may have been too clever by half. It may have given Mr. Kerry just the opening he needs to win.
If only the candidates could sing and dance.
: See also Todd S. (for snotty) Purdum, below.