Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Leading from the Gut

Not having been able to watch last night’s Republican debate, I’m catching up in the blogosphere as best I can. I gather that Romney did a little better than Perry by being more visibly prepared, quicker on his feet and more attuned to complexity. But Perry apparently didn’t do himself any harm with the Tea Partiers in the audience who repeatedly applauded him for not retracting some of his most controversial utterances. I was especially taken by the observation that Perry’s doubling down on the idea that Ben Bernanke was threatening a “treasonous” monetary policy provoked from Kevin Drum (my emphasis):
“Put this together with Perry's loud insistence that he stands by every last word in his book, Fed Up!, and it's obvious that he's decided one thing: Republican voters might or might not agree with everything you say, but they'll crucify anyone who ever admits either a mistake or even a moment's doubt. They want the mindless self confidence that comes from deep in the gut, and Perry's going to give it to them, come hell or high water. That's the takeaway from last night's debate.”
Knowing where Drum’s coming from ideologically, it’s natural to interpret his words in the light most unsympathetic to Perry and the Tea Partiers invigorated by his visceral self-confidence. So it’s natural to read “mindless” in the italicized sentence as a synonym for “frivolous” or “irrational.” When you do, Drum’s words sound like an indictment of the simple-mindedness he thinks that Perry shares with the Tea Partiers.

Notice, however, that “mindless” needn’t mean “irrational” or “ill-considered”; it can also mean something less derogatory, like “unconscious” or “unreflective.” That's an important difference because the better part of moral and political judgment is a function less of conscious deliberation than of educated reflex.  A person who has undergone a sound moral education is reflexively disposed to follow the right path without his having to deliberate about every step along the way. That's what we're talking about when we ask ourselves whether someone's heart is in the right place and derive comfort from the recognition that it is.

There needn’t be anything frivolous or irrational, then, about believing that “presidential rationality and moral seriousness” have a lot to do with having “prejudices” (in Burke’s sense), well-cultivated moral reflexes that encourage a president to ask the right questions in complex situations and heed the civilizational wisdom transmitted by his gut.  That means that it’s an open question whether it's more important to know what a presidential candidate's gut tells him than how smoothly his brain works.  It's possible that, whatever your values are, you’ll get better results from an intellectually mediocre president with sound instincts than a cleverer president with a gut that speaks softly or, worse, tends to say the wrong thing when it makes itself heard.

For a lot of people, a Perry-Obama general election will turn, in no small part on that contrast. People who aren't sold on the emanations from Perry's gut will have to ask whether his judgment is sound enough to make him a decent president.  Yet people, even those who admire his intellectual dexterity, will be asking questions of their own about Obama.

Has there ever been anyone so anxious to convince us how little work his gut does in his presidency?  From the time he set foot in the Oval Office, Obama wanted us to know that he understands something important that never dawned on George Bush: viz., that questions of state are too important to be answered by applying moral and political common sense. That's a large part of what he means when he insists that he's a "pragmatist" rather than an "ideologue."

And that’s why this White House is always making a spectacle of its rationality and expertise.  It never tires of showing off its exemplary decision-making processes that, by ventilating all the competing views, enable an intellectually commanding president to make nuanced decisions that reconcile the material countervailing considerations.  Every important administration decision is presented as the golden mean between untenable extremes.  This president's zeal to convince us that he has thought of everything explains why his deliberation often seems interminable--think of the decisions to surge more troops into Afghanistan and intervene in Libya--and culminates in decisions that are too equivocal to inspire conviction, even among the people within his own administration whose job it is to apply and defend them. 

That leaves some of Obama's staunchest supporters wondering, even at this late date, whether his heart is in the right place, or indeed at any place at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One quality I really loved about Bill Clinton was that he was absolutely determined to take the country as far to left as it was possible for it to go consistent with his retaining a high probability of being re-elected.

Obviously I disagreed with his judgment about the exact location of that line on lots of occasions, but more often than not, circumstances proved him right and showed my political judgment to be naive or plain wrong.

It was reassuring that he didn't waste a split second second-guessing himself on the only priority that really matters -- preventing the Republican nominee from winning the presidency.

I have a hard time de-coding Obama's strategy to ensure his re-election. But I do feel assured he has one and is ruthlessly pursuing it.

He saved the banks, enacted a progressive health care plan, saved countless jobs by taking over GM and speedily relinquishing that control once the company was stabilized, he signed a deal with the Russians to continue the dismantling of useless and costly nuclear weapons, he shifted our military forces to the better theatre, and he understood the vital importance of killing Osama bin Laden and took numerous agonizingly tense and uncertain decisions to see that he was killed. The proposed cuts in military spending, critical to offsetting exploding debt, might well have become untenable in the absence of bin Laden's demise.

Would I trade the President's seemingly courageous positions on “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” and the “Defense of Marriage Act,” for genuine environmental policies? Yep, I would.

His retreat on the environment is disquieting to say the least. It had better turn out to be true that the retreat is necessary to his re-election.

Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's main pollster, always maintained that presidential elections only have two issues: peace and prosperity; and that only a few intangibles to do with "leadership" could affect the otherwise straight up referendum on peace and prosperity.

So far, Obama has nailed peace, is running behind but is not out of the race on prosperity, and despite his annoying streak of overt caution is ahead on the leadership factor. If the economy is better on September 14, 2012, he'll be three-for-three and will be returned to office. If the economy is worse or equally bad, he will still have a chance, and luckily he knows it as evinced by his steady and determined jobs speech this week.

Ben Currie