Sunday, February 14, 2010

One and Out

Kudos to the New York Times for not only running a fine op-ed against Barack Obama's silly rhetoric that he'd "rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," but also using the recent biographer of James K. Polk to do it.  Or perhaps just kudos to Robert W. Merry for writing the piece, which amounts to advice not to take Polk's success too seriously.  Key point:
All this suggests a false dichotomy underlying Mr. Obama’s expressed resolve to render his presidential decisions without regard to his re-election chances — as if the choice were between political popularity and governmental success. A better approach for any chief executive is to assume that, in presidential politics, as in retailing, the customer is always right, and that the electorate’s verdict will be consonant with history’s consensus. Thus, the aim of every historically minded president, Mr. Obama included, should be to pursue a second term by bundling up voter sentiment into a collection of policies and programs that succeed in the crucial areas most on the minds of the American people.
When it comes right down to it, one of the most important fault lines in American politics is...well, in my view, it's over democracy.  It seems to me that if you like Obama's rhetoric -- if you basically assume that there's a right thing to do, and that it most likely will cost you with the voters if you do that thing -- then you're support for democracy isn't quite as strong as you might think that it is (I don't count it against Obama; it's popular rhetoric, and so using it helps him (horrors!) get reelected).   To me, belief in democracy requires a willingness to accept the outcome of representative relationships between constituents and elected officials -- that those relationships can produce policy that is good enough, or at least close enough to what people want.  And those of us who hold this position tend to be very wary of the idea that technocratic experts should be given wide latitude to set policy once elected officials point them in the right direction (a position most ably advanced in the blogosphere by Matt Yglesias).

I should say, by the way, that this is not something on which democratic theorists and political scientists in general are as divided as the population at large.  So while I do believe I'm right on this one (obviously, or I wouldn't say it), I'm reporting one person's informed position, here, and not a consensus from those who have studied and thought about it.   I try to be clear about that sort of thing as I write here, but I probably could do a better job of it.

Oh, also, Merry in his op-ed should really have included Ike as an example of a very well regarded two-term president, but he also inexplicably fails to mention Richard Nixon as a failed two-term president.  He is hesitant to put George W. Bush in that category, but I'll be pretty surprised if historians down the line wind up happy with Bush.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. So you hold the un-democratic position (among one constituency - political scientists) that holding democratic positions (among a larger, national, constituency) is better, even when the opposite position might be more popular, thus helping to win elections, which are presumably roughly democratic?

    This could take awhile to unravel...


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