Saturday, August 30, 2003

The knives are coming out

Now that Howard Dean is almost universally acknowledged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the knives are starting to come out. This is to be expected so we should not get upset about it. Winning the nomination should not be a cake walk for anyone, even Howard Dean. Bush was allowed to assume the Presidency without serious examination and look at the mess that came from that failure! However, articles like today's Washington Post story "Dean Invites More Scrutiny By Switching Key Stances" are an example of something more troublesome in our political dialog. The article tries to make the case that, now that Dean is out in front, he is adjusting his positions as part of a political maneuver to increase his appeal. It talks specifically about his positions on campaign financing, social security eligibility and the Cuban embargo. In all of these cases the article suggests (with liberal quoting from political opponents) that Dean is demonstrating a typical political cravenness by shifting his opinions to match certain key demographics or to take advantage of new realities. Let's take each of these in turn. First, when Dean pledged to abide by campaign finance limits he had no idea that he might be able to bust those limits through small donations alone. His point at the time was that the finance limits were important to prevent a small number of people from being able to outright buy the election. The federal system is designed to encourage a larger number of participants in the political process. Does it therefore make sense to abide by those limits when your campaign is living on nothing but the participation of a large number of individuals? That is what Dean would have to do if he were to abide by those limits. He would have to turn back the donations of small contributors. Does that make sense? Especially in light of George Bush's plan not to abide by those limits and spend nearly $200 million during the primary season? Second, Dean has broached the idea of raising SS eligibility to 70. But, Dean only broached the idea, he did not endorse it (and he did so several years ago). A pragmatic thinker like Dean does not rule out proposals just because they might offend certain interest groups. He might eventually decide against them, but that does not mean he shouldn't be allowed to even consider them. Extraordinary problems sometimes require thinking out side the box. Should we discourage our leaders from doing so in tough times? Dean has since said that he no longer supports the idea because he believes SS can be saved by other means. He did err when he denied suggesting that he would raise the age to 70 and he appropriately apologized right afterward when the error was pointed out to him. I consider this a plus for him: he's not so arrogant that he can't admit when he makes a mistake. All leaders make mistakes. Do we want them to always act like they are perfect? That's the way George W. Bush governs. Do we want more of the same? Third, Dean, like many others (including myself), has supported the idea of increasing economic ties to Cuba on the theory that it can help undermine the totalitarian communist system that currently controls that island. But he has rightly pointed out that, as long as Castro cracks down on dissidents as he has recently done, such talk cannot be put forward lest it be interpreted as a reward for that kind of behavior. So Dean has not come out against raising the embargo. He has just said that now is not the time to do so. This is the sign of a leader who listens to reality rather than some ideological blueprint. When it comes down to it the essence of the criticism in the Post article is that Dean is not doctrinaire. In other words, he considers the facts on the ground as well as ideology when deciding what should be done. Since facts change over the course of time the choice of what to do must also change. Part of the reason we are in such a mess right now is that we are lead by people who refuse to admit that their ideas for how to get things done don't match the reality of the world around them. Good leaders must be open to changing their stance and, just as importantly, they must be allowed to consider alternatives that are contrary to previously stated positions. And that really is what this is all about. Do we want candidates who are devoted more to putting out an image of consistency than actually working to make things better? If so then why should we be surprised that our leaders turn out to be either ideologues or mealy-mouthed politicians who will do anything they can to avoid admitting that they were wrong? This is the different between pragmatic and ideological leadership. The later tries to force reality to fit its preconceived notions while the former tries to work within the bounds of reality to make things better. The later is an arrogant presumption that the ideologue has figured it all out while the former is a humble acknowledgement that reality doesn't always match our fondest wishes. This article is essentially arguing that it is better that our political leaders be rigid ideologues (or at least make it appear that they are) rather than pragmatic realists. Is that what we really want? I say no!

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