Jonathan Cohn

An Ambitious Shapeshifter Might Just Be A Good President

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Great stuff today about Mitt Romney, with the highlight being David Frum’s defense of Romney as the Olive Garden candidate:

I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?

What should people look for in a presidential candidate? Frum trumpets “consumer service” as a virtue, not a flaw. Matt Yglesias isn’t so sure:

To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do. Is it so crazy for political activists and pundits to be curious about this? 

Let me separate those two things. First, “power-crazed sociopaths.” What I’d say to that is that ambition is a virtue, not a flaw, in politicians. Democrats very much want Barack Obama to deeply care about re-election, because they want a Democrat in the White House in 2013-2016. Moreover, they want him to care about wielding his influence as much as possible, because otherwise events will be dictated by Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner, or General Petraeus, or some anonymous bureaucrat in the Commerce Department, or just by the random rush of events and reactions. 

The limiting problem with that is that ambitious people may well be “power-crazed sociopaths.” But I don’t think, at all, that those two things are identical, and I’m not sure it’s impossible to separate the Richard Nixons and Lyndon Johnsons (who mostly were) from the Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons (who were highly ambitious, but not power-crazed sociopaths). We have, for most of these people, careers to look at. Did they follow the rules? Did they try, as Newt Gingrich did, to destroy institutions in order to achieve their goals? Did they operate through bargaining, or bullying? Sure, there are fine lines to be drawn here (when does “toughness”goodbecome “bullying”bad?). But that’s why it’s good to have peer review components in a healthy nominations process, especially at the presidential level. 

So, with the caveat that it isn’t an unambiguous virtue, for the most part I’d advise people to choose for, not against, ambition.

Now, the second part of what Yglesias saidhow can anyone know what Romney will actually do if elected? I think the answer is, basically, the same way you can know that about anyone. He’ll follow party incentives, and institutional incentives, and other such things that have little or nothing to do with what he “really” thinks. And that’s mostly a good thing! As I’ve said many times, our presidents are experts on practically none of the issues about which they must make decisions. If they fool themselves into thinking that they know more than anyone else about arms control, or the effects of economic stimulus, or farming, or 5th amendment jurisprudence, or what North Korea is up to, then there’s a good chance they’ll fail. Even worse, if they convince themselves (as Woodrow Wilson, and probably George W. Bush, did) that as a result of being elected they share some mystical bond with the American people that allows them, and only them, to understand what the American people “really” want...well, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Now, might still oppose Romney for all sorts of other reasons. But to me, flexibility of beliefs in pursuit of office is generally a good thing in a presidential candidate.

(See also Ross Douthat, who Frum was responding to, and Daniel Larison, who makes what I think boils down to an aesthetic argumentagainst Romney’s style).

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