Presidential elections fundamentally are about the future. As fine a job as a candidate may have done in the past, he or she is not likely to win elective office if people have good reason to believe the person will do a poor job in the future. Past performance is, of course, a useful indicator of future performance, but it is far from infallible. Therefore, voters must look also at the candidates themselves, their character, temperament, programs, philosophy of government, and whom they choose as their advisers, among other things.
One thing I have learned in the course of studying politics for the last 25 years is that presidents are not dictators. They cannot snap their fingers and make things happen. Even the notion that presidents have their fingers on the nuclear trigger is largely fiction. They can give orders, but that doesn't mean that they are automatically carried out. The chain of command is very long; there are too many ways to delay, block and derail even the firmest of presidential directives; and there are too few ways for presidents to punish those who disobey them.
Thus, in practice, there is no real reason to fear the unilateral actions of any president. Their power to do harm is heavily circumscribed by Congress, the courts, media and public opinion. When presidents have made big mistakes, it was almost always with a large body of support, both intellectual and political. For example, the Vietnam War was a big mistake, and much of how the war was prosecuted was also mistaken. But at every step of the way, and in every major action he took, Lyndon Johnson had significant support from respected authorities and the public, as well.
The point is that a president's freedom of action is far more limited than most political debate would have us believe. And our system of government has ways of fixing mistakes fairly quickly. Bill Clinton is an excellent example. He came into office wanting to be another LBJ, with plans for big spending programs, nationalization of health care and other ambitious schemes. Clinton quickly found that even though his party controlled both houses of Congress, he could not ram things through unless he took the time to build support on both sides of the aisle.
Clinton also discovered that financial markets and other outside forces have vast influence over what a president can and cannot do. His plan for a big economic stimulus plan in early 1993, for example, was thwarted when investors took a dim view of it and sold their government bonds, causing interest rates to rise. Had Clinton gone ahead with his plans, the higher interest rates would have offset all of the stimulus he hoped for. This experience forced Clinton into a 180 degree reversal, and he ended up supporting a big deficit reduction plan instead.
This analysis suggests that it makes little difference whether the American people elect Al Gore or George W. Bush. And insofar as it is possible for them to do great harm, at least to the economy, that is mostly true. Where presidents matter a lot, however, is in their ability to lead, to set the agenda and force action on issues. This is especially important on those of a long-term nature, for which there is no urgency in taking action immediately.
The second easiest thing in government is to do nothing. The first easiest is to counsel delay. It is forever possible to get more advice, do more studies, take more polls and wait for a more politically favorable time to take action. The president's biggest responsibility, in my view, is to say that the time for discussion is over and to get some action. Even when the action turns out to be wrong, it is usually better to move ahead than wait. Once action is taken, problems that would otherwise remain hidden often become obvious, and can quickly be fixed. Indecision, on the other hand, simply allows those problems to fester out of view. Thus, I would rank decisiveness as first among the qualities a president should have.
What do these observations tell us about whether Gore or Bush would be a better president? In my view, Bush comes out ahead on the things I think are most important. I say this not so much because he favors many of the policies I do, but because I am more comfortable with the way he establishes priorities, his decision-making process, the kinds of people he asks for advice and surrounds himself with, and the confidence with which he moves forward once he has made a decision.
For me, Bush's choice to make Social Security reform a key part of his program speaks volumes about his leadership. For decades, Social Security reform has been the so-called Third Rail of American politics -- anyone who touches it dies. And Republicans have been badly burned in the past on this issue, when they ventured forward with ill-timed and ill-prepared initiatives. No Republican would have faulted Bush for leaving this issue aside and sticking only to those with no downside risk politically. So, in my view, it shows not only wisdom, but great courage for Bush to have raised the issue of Social Security reform and to stand firm against demagogic attacks from Gore and his allies.
By contrast, I cannot think of any position Gore has taken in this campaign that exhibits any political courage whatsoever. Quite the contrary. He has flip-flopped on fundamental issues such as abortion and gun control, pandered shamelessly to key electoral constituencies such as the elderly, and shown poor temperament in his frequently noted propensity to exaggerate and even lie about his accomplishments.
I think Bush has earned the right to be given a chance to lead this country. I do not think it will be a disaster if the nation chooses Gore instead. But I find it hard to believe, based on his record and the way he has run his campaign, that we can expect Gore to make the tough decisions and rally the American people to action on politically difficult, but not necessarily pressing, issues such as Social Security. Bush, by contrast, has touched the Third Rail and lived. That may be a good enough reason to support him.