The Administrative President
Governor Christie was unfortunate enough to encounter his bridge crisis during a slow news month. Congress is not in session and the President is on the road selling his policies but the press is snot paying attention to that, preferring to see him as someone who is too much inside his own head when what he is doing is paying attention to business rather than silliness. So that gives us a chance to consider the way Barack Obama has been a transformational President in a way he didn't expect. He and presumably future presidents will be held account for administrative failures, these becoming the main issues of the moment given that the more traditional issues have run out of steam at least for a while.
Cultural issues, not many campaign cycles ago, dominated political discourse, at least until the Republicans learned that they appealed only to the already converted and so lost the Party statewide races. Republicans have found that being pro-foetus no longer gets you very far in congress or national elections, no matter how well it plays back home at constituency meetings. Maybe that is because Republican candidates were so lame footed in how they approached these matters, what with talk of vaginal probes and legitimate rape. It also had to do, I surmise, with the fact that foetuses don't vote and they don't look that cute on ultrasound and the people out to defend them weren't much more appealing, while young women vote, just as oldsters out to protect their Social Security also vote, and young women don't want government to take away their right to abortion on demand. (Toddlers are appealing, just as young women are, but that doesn't help food stamps or Head Start funding because cute doesn't count if you can't vote.)
Another traditional issue for political cleavage is foreign policy, but Republicans would have a hard time selling Americans on the idea that what we need is another war in the Middle East, even if Neocons continue to say that the Iran talks are bound to fail, when in fact those talks have already accomplished more than any previous administration did in getting Iran to stop making forward progress on an atomic weapon. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent book shows that he disagrees ideologically with the President but thinks Obama had been judicious in his decision making, which is more than Gates would say about Obama's predecessor. Gates remains the hawk he always was and so disagrees with Obama who was lucky enough to have the two years a President needs at the start of his term to get control of his military without a disaster striking. All Obama had to do during that interval was allow something of a surge he was not crazy about to go ahead in Afghanistan. Kennedy had to deal with the disaster of the Bay of Pigs and Johnson with an escalated war in Vietnam he could not figure out how to control, dependent as was on people who thought American military power could solve the problem of the Vietnam insurgency. George W. Bush, of course, became for most of his Presidency a creature of his military: his Secretary of Defense advocating for the military and his Vice President a former Secretary of Defense doing likewise. The Department of State was cut off at the knees.
The great Presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, take us through successful wars; the near great Presidents, like Obama and Jefferson, keep us out of needless wars or else, like Truman, take us through necessary but unpopular wars that are indecisive or, like Polk, through unpopular wars that in retrospect look very necessary. All things told, the people living in the Southwest are better off that they live north of the border and the area was up for grabs anyway because it was so lightly settled.
A third traditional issue for political cleavage is the economy, and the Republicans have certainly run out of steam on that. They keep complaining that the recovery is not proceeding quickly enough but have no viable options for how to move it along more quickly except by invoking their always invoked solution: give rich people more money. Well, Occupy Wall Street may not have succeeded as a social movement, but the image it sought to convey has struck home, which is that rich people are doing very well and that poor and middle class people aren't. Look at how rental and purchase prices for real estate in Manhattan have risen while poorer people cannot find jobs. I don't think the Republicans are going to get much mileage out of a "soak the poor" campaign, even if it did work for Reagan.
So what are the issues? They have become administrative in that they are about the implementation of policy rather than what is the correct policy. The fight over Obamacare, to the extent there is any juice left in it, does not seem any more to be about principle. Only occasionally do you hear that one is robbing people of their liberty if the government guarantees that they will get health care at an affordable price if they would only sign up for an insurance policy. The argument, rather, is that the roll out was so terrible and the whole system so much a Rube Goldberg device that it is bound to fall of its own weight. There is a good deal of snickering that this will take place but not much interest in what alternative principle of health care should be put in its place. Not many people probably agree with the person who shouted out at a Republican primary debate in 2012: "Let them die!"
Similarly, the debate about everything from food stamps to early childhood education is whether local people can spend the money better, an administrative debate, though Governor O'Malley of Maryland was correct in pointing out today on CNN that what Republicans mean by that is lessening the amount of money that will be shipped to the states from the amount presently spent by the federal government on the various states. But I don't think Republicans can run on "states as laboratories of invention" when they will be shellacked for cutting funds for any number of categories of poor people. That is a losing proposition, so they will have to find some other administrative issue to promote.
One of these might be national surveillance. Now it is funny for Republicans to be championing civil liberties; they usually think the only Amendment that counts is the Second Amendment. And so the discussion over NSA scrutiny of phone records is simply oppositionist: whatever Obama favors, they are against, even if they were for it when Bush was in charge. But even the call for scrutiny of Big Brother is half-hearted. Everybody is in favor of necessary surveillance that serves vital anti-terrorist activities; everybody is against unnecessary surveillance that reaches into people's private lives for no good reason. So the question, to the extent there is any, is technical and administrative: how do you properly design the protocols for doing this kind of work? The Republicans are claiming, with very little history to prove it, that they are more competent than Democrats to take on the work of balancing competing legitimate interests.
There is a cycle in American politics that has to do with whether competence or personality is the more important attribute of a candidate for President. Certainly one of the reasons incompetency becomes an issue at the moment for Republicans is that Obama is African-American and so not to be trusted on competency. He did enter the Presidency with relatively little experience on the stage of national politics, but he did have a life-long interest in foreign policy, a ground level view of domestic policy from his time as a community organizer and a State Senator, and the gravitas and knowledge that come from being a professor of constitutional law. Few newcomers to Washington political life have that resume. Woodrow Wilson may have been the last previous President with as good credentials.
American political history goes back and forth between candidates with charm and those who brandish their competency. No one liked Lyndon Johnson, but he got things done. Everybody (which didn't include me) liked Ronald Reagan and so his impeachable meanderings were forgiven. Regan also left everything to his cabinet, which happened to be a very good one. Dukakis ran on competence but it didn't do him much good because no one cared that Reagan didn't know anything. George Bush I was competent but not very warm and fuzzy. The last President who was both appealing and competent was Bill Clinton but he spoiled the two years when he might have got things done by giving in to his demons. Nobody thought George W. Bush was up to the job but they didn't hold that against such an appealing fellow (though not to me). Hillary is charming enough, as Obama so accurately put it, but her demons, which involve always cutting things a bit too fine, may come back to haunt her. Her supporters, including myself, will be apologizing for her from the day she takes office. That is the way it is with the Clintons, and the American people will have to decide whether, forewarned as they are, they want to put up with that or go with Jeb Bush, who seems both an attractive candidate and a competent one.