August 16, 2004

Why It Matters That the President is a Fool

This article by Matt Yglesias in The American Prospect is one of the best things I've read in weeks. We've got to get away from our People-magazine approach to politics in this country. That people vote for particular candidates on the basis of characteristics like marital fidelity or likeability is having extremely negative consequences for the country. What should matter most is fitness for office. And while George W. Bush might be an entertaining golf partner, he's out of his depth at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Posted by armand at August 16, 2004 11:36 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Politics


I see a couple of difficulties in the reasoning of this article. It seems Matt Yglesias assumes people voted for Bush because Gore was perceived to have character flaws. He doesn't cite any evidence for this except that it was an argument made against Gore during the campaign, and I don't think it's true, at least in the way Matt Yglesias believes it to be true. That is, the only way it was perceived outside of Limbaugh land to be true (less than 49% of the country) is that Gore changed his stand on issues while serving as VP from when he was in the Congress, so much so that he wouldn't even have been reelected in his own state if he'd run again. This is the same way the character issue challenges Kerry who has the debate-team mentality: it's not about what he believes inside to be true, it's about what he believes is the right thing to say in front of the judges at the time to get their vote--and that's why he's in hot water for making a dramatic pitch about his Christmas Eve in Cambodia. W offers a more consistent presentation; I and so many others believe there to be great potential in stem cell research, but biologically there is no defining line between a zygote and a human child, so as a matter of law it's consistent to value them equally.

Further, there is a bleed over between issues like marital fidelity into public life, as was seen so recently in New Jersey with the scandal about a governor who jeopardized the safety of his state's citizens by overlooking the former FBI director for a security post and choosing his lover--at the same time the governor jeopardized his own marriage. To believe that a politician has one personality for public service and another for their personal life suggests a degree of sophistication that is at the least rare in human experience. Inconsiderate behavior (however that's mutually defined by marital partners) and a sense of entitlement will bleed over into public service, and that's when people start taking the china when they leave the White House.

In the end, I don't believe Americans voted for Bush because he's stupid, or even believing that to be true. Let's remember the difference between intelligence (adaptive ablility) and achievement (accumulated knowledge). They voted for W for the same reasons they voted for Clinton, an election which should have settled once and for all that Americans don't care about traditional, conservative character values. Americans believe that when W is talking, he's telling them the truth as best as he knows it, and he's going to help them as best as he can (Texans would phrase it this way). If Americans change their beliefs, they will put someone else in office in November. Have some faith in the system. Just because we both have above-average IQs doesn't give us the right to make political decisions for other people.

Posted by: Morris at August 16, 2004 04:50 PM | PERMALINK

"Americans believe that when W is talking, he's telling them the truth as best as he knows it, and he's going to help them as best as he can (Texans would phrase it this way)."

Even if we except this to be true (and I do not), is that enough? I don't think that Yglesias was saying people voted for Bush because he's stupid. The problem is that many people don't seem to mind him being stupid as long as he says what they want to hear, or finds some wayto reassure them that he shares their values. The presidency is not a job in which you should be rewarded for doing your best. You should be doing what's best for the country - and some people, quite possibly the current president, are not up to the job. And I think it's entirely reasonable that things like one's ability to engage in critical thinking or to successfully run a management team should be a bigger part of the national political debate.

Posted by: armand at August 17, 2004 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

It seems you're equating your own views on foreign policy with being smart, and Bush's with being stupid and lacking critical thinking ability. I think it's fair to argue and debate this. Personally, I would say the fault is not Bush's for seeking to disuade Saddam from acquiring nuclear capability (why else would he kick out the nuclear inspectors?... It's not a lack of critical thinking ability to assume Saddam is hiding weapons programs as he's done in the past especially when Bush is getting reports to this effect now confirmed by two other nations' intelligence services), but rather our UN "partners" like France and Germany who didn't support this endeavor. If the world had been truly united against the threat of rogue states proliferating, we could have gotten to N Korea as well before they had time to develop this capability. But the idea of a paranoid having WMDs isn't any scarier to them than it was to Neville Chamberlain. The fault for N Korea isn't Bush's because he's trying to keep weapons out of the hands of people who want to hurt us. That's like saying it's the Brady Bill's fault when someone steals a gun because they're a convicted felon. Saddam has killed 300,000 people and tortured countless more, and you think we should take his word that he's not going to hurt us? You may disagree with Bush's approach, but subscribing to a forein policy vision based on the psychology of BF Skinner rather than Carl Rogers doesn't make him stupid, it's just not what you'd do in his place.

Posted by: Morris at August 17, 2004 05:23 PM | PERMALINK

What does this have to do with my views? I am not the issue. I am talking about the president's ability to understand critical arguments, multiple possibilities, to think both long-term and short-term - these are very basic things that have to do with efficiency and planning. What I'm complaining about is the president's complete lack of curiousity and his reluctance to engage critical thinking. This inability to think has nothing whatsoever to do with a debate over policy. This has to do with his willingness to act rationally, not just on an uninformed gut instinct. Now sure, I am expecting any president to agree with me to the extent that I want them to act rationally, consider (not adopt, but at least consider) a range of alternatives, and consider the long-range implications of their policy choices. But I think most Americans would like rational, careful decision makers in office. And sure, rational decision makers can favor a wide variety of policies.

In terms of the rest of your response - Saddam DID NOT kick out the inspectors (if you are talking about 2003). Bush saying it does not make it true (except perhaps in Bush's mind).

And Bush hasn't done a damn thing on North Korea while they have built not just WMD, but probably nuclear bombs. His inaction on that (other to than to routinely threaten them, which makes their actions none too surprising) is inexcusable. And it has imperiled the nation, and to me, this is one of the issues in which it is most clear (on policy grounds) that Bush is unfit for command. He picked a fight, saw he couldn't win it with the tactics he likes, and decided he'd just leave it be while a totalitarian regime far-more backward and repressive than Saddam Hussein's builds the most dangerous weapons on Earth. Chamberlain was at least playing for time. Bush seems disinterested in dealing with a problem, no matter how threatening it may be, if it can't be on his terms.

Posted by: armand at August 18, 2004 01:55 PM | PERMALINK

Armand, I think I am going to have to revoke your Cynics' Club membership card. Most Americans want rational decision makers? I am less generous than you, and suspect that few know what they want, much less that they want rationality.

Posted by: binky at August 18, 2004 03:25 PM | PERMALINK

I wasn't talking about 2003, thankyou. Kicking the inspectors out years before led to the questions about whether Saddam had acquired new WMDs in the mean time, and this led to the U.S. policy of regime change adopted by Clinton and then acted on by Bush. I guess you would say Clinton was taking his time rationally thinking out a policy. But regime change is not something predictable. It's gone fairly well in Afghanistan because Karzai had broad support, but Saddam had killed off all such political threats to him in Iraq. It was going to be difficult, and no amount of brainstorming would have made this transition easy. What I was saying in my earlier comment was that after the U.S. was committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, we really don't have the international cooperation to fight in N Korea as well without help from allies like Germany and France. But are you sure we should have gone hapharzardly into N Korea? Maybe we should appoint a commision to study all the alternatives, try economic sanctions for a few years, then ask the UN if it's okay. Of course by that time they'd have plenty of nukes, but we can't be reckless about this. You suggest we shouldn't be talking about specific policies of the administration. I don't see how else you want to presume to know Bush's ability to understand critical arguments etc., unless you're privy to a cognitive assessment I don't have. I would certainly agree that Bush doesn't have Reagan's strength in communicating the intellectual basis for his policies to the American people, but I don't presume this equates with such a basis not existing. Also, I think you're underestimating gut instinct, without which we fall prey to the sophistry of great orators. Instinct by its nature is an evolutionary protection against such dangers.

Posted by: Morris at August 18, 2004 04:55 PM | PERMALINK

"I don't see how else you want to presume to know Bush's ability to understand critical arguments etc., unless you're privy to a cognitive assessment I don't have."

Well, I just know what the people who've worked for him say, and what he himself says, and whether you're talking about Afghanistan or Iraq or economics it's quite clear that he's neither intellectually curious nor much of a critical thinker. That's been written in about a gazillion articles and books. I mean just look at how he describes himself in The Commanders. Or what former Treasury Secretary O'Neil and former EPA head Whitman say about him in The Price of Loyalty.

As to his specific policies, that's not the point of this post. I was talking about how he thinks (or fails to think), not what he thinks.

As to the specifics on Iraq, North Korea, and Afghanistan (you think that's going well?), we can argue that in another venue. But I will say that a great deal of brainstorming went on at lower levels of government prior to the invasion of Iraq, but Bush and Rumsfeld had little interest in that, ignored it, and made extremely costly mistakes because of their willful ignorance (there are some good, if dated, stories on that in the January/February 2004 issue of The Atlantic).

Posted by: armand at August 18, 2004 08:47 PM | PERMALINK

Think about what you're saying, Armand...Bush is stupid because Bush is stupid, or because people say Bush is stupid, and therefore everything that Bush does is stupid. But you don't want to debate about the policies of Bush because that would be a waste of're dismissing in your argument the very intellectual curiosity you fault Bush for lacking. What the original article said spoke to this point...Bush has the courage to pursue his vision even when others (like O'Neil) disagree and make money off their disagreement by publishing books from which they reap the profits. How many people would have bought O'Neil's book if it spoke well of the prez? How many talk shows would he have gotten to appear on, to publicize it, if it had simply supported the prez?

Do you prefer the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan? Does it not bother you when women can't vote, get stoned, can't go to school? Would you prefer we had left the terrorist training camps there? Do you just not care about the democratic process and the human rights it embraces? A disorganized schizophrenic can be perfectly, laughing all day long, whereas most people feel anxiety, and the political anxiety reflected in continued violence is the mark of a healthy system appearing.

Yes, there were lower level people who disagreed with Bush. In any administration one of the thousands of lower level people will send someone a memo that seems predictive of future events, but people at the top have to make decisions, and just because it leads to conflict doesn't mean they made a bad decision.

Posted by: Morris at August 19, 2004 01:06 PM | PERMALINK

Dude, you are totally missing the point. This post was not about any one particular policy. We can talk about those on other posts. The point of this particular post was Bush's limited cognitive faculties and his resulting decision-making style.

And where do you get the idea that I like the Taliban? Or that I opposed invading Afghanistan? Or that I'm against war? Or that other Bush critics are simply against war? Huh?!?!?

Back to what this article was actually about - one of the points of the article (from my point of view) is that even when Bush has the right instincts or the right general idea, the astounding level to which he is not detail-oriented leads to preventable mistakes. As does his disinterest in hearing competing views, and running his policy team in a way that encourages groupthink. Even if we accept that his heart is in the right place and he has the right direction for America in his heart, his laziness and decision-making ineptitude cost lives and vast sums of money. You'd think the conservatives would want a leader who wouldn't make easily foreseen mistakes.

And Paul O'Neil doesn't need any more money. He, and many others, were simply describing events as they were. Don't forget that the president describes himself this way, as do supposedly true-blue Republicans like David Brooks and George Will.

Posted by: Armand at August 19, 2004 02:04 PM | PERMALINK

This is finally becoming clear to me: you're not critical of the president for his lack of cognitive abilities. You're criticizing the prez because he doesn't have a thinking personality, as the Meyers Briggs would put it, a green according to the true colors personality sort like Al Gore and Hilary Clinton. Let's think about how effective Hilary is at managing a team, even conservatives say she's good at that. But where's that comprehensive health care policy that her comission was supposed to come up with? Why is Kerry touting health care as a big campaign issue when she and her fellow brainstormers sat around for a year talking and writing reports about what health care policy is best for America? Didn't they solve it once and for all, with all that critical thinking and group management in play? She has a cognitive/personality style that I'm sure you approve, but this is no more a guarantee of success than a feeling personality is a guarantee of failure. Do you actually believe that other personality types (besides your own) do not have their own virtues? Do you believe that it isn't important for some people in this society hold values to be more important than thoughts? Perhaps not, but as Jesse Jackson would say, it takes all colors to make a rainbow.

BTW, if you take for granted that Paul O'Neil was acting out of noble intentions, I assume you're willing to extend the same blind faith in the swift boat vets.

Posted by: at August 19, 2004 04:39 PM | PERMALINK

You are really determined to make this all about me and my preferences (or for some reason Paul O'Neill's). I could say that I don't have much faith in your seeming preference for relying upon ouija boards or diving rods over expert reports, but what you or I personally like isn't what I'm talking about.

What I'm saying is that there's a ton of lit in decision-making (drawing on poli sci, econ, psych, history) that shows that people who make decisions in the style that Bush does make many more preventable mistakes than other political leaders. And these things hurt the national interest. It's not simply a matter of doing A or B it's HOW you do A or B (or C, F or L). That's very well established, and I think it's a perfectly reasonable campaign issue. And we can already see plenty of individual examples of this in this presidency - mistakes that didn't have to be made if they were more careful and diligent in their decision-making. People should be held to account for stupid preventable errors (you want specifics, fine - here are some from just the Iraq situation: our gross mishandling of Turkey, disbanding the Iraqi army, going in with too few troops, etc.). And if people have a history of making these kinds of errors, it should be brought up for voters to consider when they are deciding for whom to vote.

Posted by: at August 20, 2004 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

Armand, what I'm saying is that the decision making style of Bush may indeed lead to conflict, preventable mistakes, etc., but this style also has getting things done. It is a more action-oriented personality, and of course people who take action more frequently are going to more frequently make mistakes that could have been prevented if instead of taking action they sat around and discussed things in committee. Should we really have forked over all the money Turkey was demanding in exchange for using their bases when we didn't need those bases after all? I agree that voters should consider all things when making their decisions, but I think you're choosing not to see the advantages of other decisions making styles. After all, is Kerry really your candidate because he seems to think we should have made lots of changes to the intel community long before the 9/11 commision returned its reported? Is that encouraging groupthink any more than Bush?

Posted by: Morris at August 20, 2004 02:29 PM | PERMALINK
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