The Thing That Matters

The planned timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t tell you much about either Presidential candidate, though I grant you there’s a meaningful difference between McCain’s declaration that we could stay for a hundred years and Obama planning to leave by 2010. If it comes down to a situation where the current holders of political power in Iraq genuinely want us to leave (as opposed to posturing that they want us to leave in advance of their own elections), then I think that’s going to trump the plans of either candidate in any event.

What’s really important is what the candidates say about what went wrong in the first place. Not that they admit or agree that something went wrong, but their concrete plans for repairing the political and executive processes that shaped the decision to go to war and the execution of national security policy through this Administration. Obama could say a lot more about how he specifically intends to govern in this area, sketching process as well as policy, because process is policy. McCain, on the other hand, has made it very clear that the process of decision-making by Cheney and Bush is more or less how he will conduct business, that while mistakes may have been made, each of them stands alone as a specific miscalculation rather than as the systemic consequence of a philosophy of deliberative process and executive authority.

Withdrawal is the wrong issue for opponents of the war to worry about. The real question to the candidates is: how will you deliberate and decide? Will you reverse the flow of power and prerogative to the executive?

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5 Responses to The Thing That Matters

  1. hektor.bim says:

    This is somewhat right, but not entirely. It matters greatly what the nominees say in the campaign. The press and the power elite have been trying extremely hard to get Obama to back down on his 16 months pledge, and he has refused. The promises candidates make in their election campaigns strongly influence how they will behave in office.

  2. withywindle says:

    Process may be policy, MacLuhan-san, but process is lousy politics.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    If you mean electoral politics, yes. If you mean “politics as it is practiced within political bodies”, no.

  4. Doug says:

    Following Molly Ivins’ maxim about the three ways to gauge what a politician will be like in higher office, this is an area where the MSM’s incessant process stories might actually be helpful. Unless you can find good information on how either has run his Senate office, reporting on how the campaigns have been run will be your best available guide. (Its absolute value may be another matter entirely, of course.)

    I think it’s unlikely that candidates are going to come out and explicitly answer the question that you’ve posed. (Though something about reactions to the Bush approach to executive power may be on their web sites; I haven’t looked.) But they’ve been showing us every day through their campaigns. “No leaks, no drama” will certainly be a watchword in an Obama White House.

    Who’s had good advance work? Who’s had reverses? Whose reverses have been all over the press? Who’s mastered existing processes? Who’s created new avenues? The candidates have built half-billion-dollar enterprises in under two years. How they’ve done it will show how the will govern.

    Those questions can probably be answered even through the veil of horse-race press coverage, and those answers will tell you a lot about how each candidate would govern.

  5. fridaykr says:

    I think there are, at best, only imperfect indicators of the type of governing we might expect from an Obama or McCain administration. These might include, as Tim mentioned, a clear diagnosis of the lapses in governing principles that have plagued the Bush administration.

    The indicators might also include portraits of the histories and governing styles of those who will staff the administration and be responsible for implementing, or attempting to implement, its policies. As a history of Bush’s appointments –to the EPA, Justice, DOD, HUD, have shown–these people may be better indicators of an administration’s governing style, or lack of one.

    While the attention paid to the effectiveness of campaigning can be an indicator of governing, it is a misleading one. By this measure, one would have predicted a Bush administration to be at least competent. However, as most agree by now, Bush and his inner circle campaigned much better than they governed.

    But ultimately I question how useful these lines of inquiry can be. Perhaps we look for indicators –campaign rhetoric, staff and croney biographies, campaign processes— to make our support for a particular candidate seem less like the leap of faith that it is. The implicit reasoning these questions reinforce is “If you want x, vote y.” Further, this question — how will a candidate likely govern? — reinforces the tendency to see our leaders as having an agency or efficacy they may not always possess. The trick, we tell ourselves, is cutting through the spin and figuring out how they will do their jobs.

    I think the speculations of candidates’ governing elides a good deal of the messiness and conflicting priorities of the bureacracies that need to be instrumental in this governing. At the risk of hijacking this thread, I will note that the TV series “The Wire” provides a comprehensive rejoinder to this line of thinking, in part by showing the way in which bureaucractic priorities are perpetually misaligned and create perverse incentives that are difficult for reform-minded individuals to resist or change.

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