In the summer of 1980, Democrats were delighted (bordering on ecstatic) when it became clear that the Republican Party’s presidential nominee would be Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the choice of the Republicans’ extreme conservative flank, and the prospect of his nomination so unnerved the establishment wing of his party that they frantically tried to convince former President Gerald Ford to agree to be drafted at the convention. The party’s elders viewed nominating Ford as the only possible way to prevent Republicans from suffering another Goldwater-like drubbing in the general election.
Why were the Democrats so happy? Reagan was not merely an ideological extremist, but he was a walking gaffe machine. A columnist at the Washington Post regularly published statements by Reagan that indicated both a lack of intelligence and a disturbing inability to distinguish reality from plot lines in Reagan’s movies. Reagan was a comedian’s dream, and he had failed as a presidential candidate more than once. From incumbent President Carter’s perspective, Reagan was the perfect opponent.
That little bit of history is worth bearing in mind for a number of reasons. First, it undercuts current Republicans’ persistent assertions that Reagan was a towering figure who personally oversaw an intellectual revolution in American government. Second, it should remind Democrats that the seemingly delicious prospect of facing a weak candidate—Trump or Carson currently, Palin or Quayle in recent elections—is no guarantee of success, and that failure against outside-the-mainstream opponents is truly disastrous.
In this column, I will discuss a third issue that the Reagan candidacy and presidency raises: Does the president need to know anything … about anything? I raise this issue not just because of the prospect of a future “outsider” president (Trump, Carson, or Fiorina) but also because the current crop of Republican insiders is so proudly ignorant about so many issues facing the country that they appear to be no better than the three outsiders. As I noted in a recent Verdict column, “Budgetary Nonsense Across the Republican Landscape,” even the supposedly serious policy-oriented Republican presidential candidates are shockingly ill-informed about even basic economic principles. It is not just Donald Trump who is willing to repeat lies as if they were facts. They all do.
Despite worries expressed by people like me, however, could it be that none of this matters? Is it possible that the president simply does not need to be smart, informed, or even engaged with his presidency? The answer is that she or he does, indeed, need to be all of those things, but it is instructive to think through the arguments that the president can be an empty vessel who nonetheless does no harm to the country. Interestingly, moreover, even presidents who are smart, informed, and engaged can still lose their way, as I will describe below.
The “He Has Good Advisors” Defense
The Reagan candidacy in 1980, once the general election campaign began, presented Republicans with a challenge. Most of the important Republicans in the country had opposed him, yet they suddenly found themselves needing to come up with ways to justify supporting him. The two issues that ultimately doomed President Carter’s reelection chances—the Iranian hostage crisis and, much more importantly as a matter of influencing the election, the weak economy—did not make Reagan an easier candidate to defend. They merely made it possible to change the subject from the Republicans’ weak candidate, allowing the campaign to be dominated by a long series of attacks on the incumbent Democrat.
Even so, the Carter campaign had amassed stacks of briefing books filled with Reagan’s gaffes and attack-worthy material, and they tried to use that material at every turn. Most of the facts were beyond dispute, so the Republicans had to defend their candidate by somehow explaining away the many embarrassing anecdotes that Democrats gleefully repeated at every turn.
The Republicans settled on a strategy of skipping over the question of Reagan’s competence (not denying any of the attacks, exactly, but simply ignoring them) and asserting that everyone should calm down, because Reagan would be surrounded by the best minds in the country. Those wise men, in turn, would keep the dimwitted interloper from drawing outside the lines. Although I was rather young at the time, I remember vividly how quickly I started to hear people repeat the mantra, “It doesn’t matter if Reagan is out to lunch. He’ll have great advisors.”
The deeply cynical assumption at the bottom of this narrative was that Republican leaders had effectively immunized the party from being changed by actual voters. The very people who had wanted Reagan to lose the nomination could satisfy themselves that Reagan’s conservative populist insurgency would be easy to control, because Reagan himself could be easily controlled. (We have seen this attitude reappear more recently, when the Republican Party’s elite establishment—now, ironically, populated by Reagan alumni—embraced the rise of the Tea Party movement, only to find that this new populist movement could not be controlled by the money-backed men who hold those hyper-conservative zealots in obvious contempt.) The Reagan presidency would, in this view, simply be a generic Republican presidency, and the people who really run the show would continue to do so.
Once Reagan’s first term was underway, however, a strange thing happened. Reagan’s administration was dominated by scandal and ineptitude, and the news each night included embarrassing stories about, for example, a cabinet secretary’s loopy comments suggesting that the Lord’s imminent return made environmental stewardship unnecessary.
During Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, therefore, the challenge was to explain why the country should elect a cypher-president who had not surrounded himself with the wise men who had supposedly been available to right the ship. Again, the economy (driven mostly by a change in monetary policy initiated by President Carter’s appointed Fed Chair) ultimately made the conversation moot and set the table for Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale. During the campaign, however, the Republican’s response to, “It turns out that Reagan has bad advisors” was, “Yes, but that doesn’t matter, because Reagan is the one who is in charge.”
How Much Do Knowledge and Intelligence Matter?
Leaving aside the obviously opportunistic change in political strategy embodied in Reagan’s two successful campaigns, those experiences provide us with some possible ways to think about the president’s importance in running the country. Should we care about the advisors, the president, or both?
The most obvious challenge to the case for a weak president is the presidency of George W. Bush. Bush has long been widely considered among the worst presidents in the nation’s history, and his presidency was the very model of the detached, ignorant executive. Much of that failure was driven by the very dynamic that the 1980 Reagan campaign had championed: It supposedly did not matter that the nominal leader of the free world would be a man of no consequence, because the party’s wizened leaders would take charge. To make it even clearer that the boy Bush was not to be taken too seriously, the ultimate party insider Dick Cheney installed himself as the vice president. Cheney then brought with him other insiders like Donald Rumsfeld.
This is not the time or place to recapitulate the disasters of the Bush II presidency. But when a president’s defenders’ best hope is that, “when all is said and done Bush may be regarded at least as a mediocre president,” the big picture becomes rather hard to ignore.
Of course, if one concludes from the George W. Bush presidency that an incompetent and intellectually lazy chief executive is a recipe for disaster (a conclusion that is strengthened, if one looks past the hype, by remembering the Reagan presidency’s many failures), that does not necessarily mean that having a smart, engaged president insures that everything will work perfectly. Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush I, and Obama are all viewed as intelligent men. (The elder Bush’s inability to speak clearly raises a bit of a challenge to that view, but there is no doubt that he is at least above average.) Bad things also happened under each of their presidencies, after all, and their deep engagement with the issues did not appear to help avoid those problems.
The easy answer to that challenge is that each of those four presidencies was in some meaningful sense successful. Although both Carter and Bush lost their reelection bids, each man can boast of important achievements (Carter’s Israel-Egypt peace accords and Bush’s Americans With Disabilities Act, as two prominent examples). Clinton and Obama took office during times of economic weakness and turned the economy around significantly. President Obama, of course, has not been able to turn relatively strong job growth into income growth for most Americans, which is why he is not as popular as the positive jobs numbers would usually suggest.
Even so, we can look at the failures of these otherwise-successful presidencies to see whether the president himself matters, as opposed to his advisors. The problem is that even advisors to Democratic presidents have track records that undermine their claims to wisdom.
As I have frequently lamented here on Verdict, including in the last several paragraphs of the October 8 column that I mentioned above, there is a disturbing bipartisan tendency—heavily tilted toward Republicans, but including a distressingly large number of Democrats—to engage in hyperventilating scare tactics when it comes to budget deficits and the national debt. Indeed, large numbers of current and former politicians of both parties have created pseudo-research organizations that are determined to spin any possible good news about the federal budget as bad news.
For example, two such “deficit scold” groups (which are actually part of one larger political operation) recently offered dark warnings about the future path of deficits, admitting that the deficit has fallen, but “debt continues to rise.” Well, yes. That is how it works. By definition, an annual deficit increases the national debt, by exactly the amount that the country adds to its borrowing in a given year. The question is why a group that holds itself out as a sober group of deep thinkers about fiscal matters would headline its pronouncements with a statement the economic equivalent of, “A Car That Slows Down Is Still Moving.”
One answer to that question is that these groups are not actually in the business of carefully analyzing the country’s fiscal situation, but instead are simply trying to scare the populace. Maybe they believe that the proverbial Joe Sixpack does not know the difference between deficits and debt, so it is important to issue press releases that state the painfully obvious, simply to frighten average people into thinking that there is a problem. Nuance, the argument might go, is a luxury that we cannot afford in the face of this horrible threat. If people wrongly conclude that debt should go down, so be it.
If that is the argument, however, then we have to revise our understanding of what these groups do. They claim to be seriously engaged in policy analysis, but if they were, they would not care that debt is going up. Everyone who actually understands budgetary accounting and the economics of fiscal policy knows that debt levels will rise over time, and that they should. Even the most extreme Republican proposals in Congress to reduce government spending would result in rising debt levels. We will handle higher debt levels by continuing to expand the size of the economy, not by harming the economy with actual attempts to cut debt (which would be self-defeating, even if we foolishly tried to enact them).
If serious policy analysis takes rising debt levels as a given, however, then trying to scare people by reminding them that debt levels will rise is the height of dishonesty. A president who listens to groups like that is, at best, opportunistically harnessing blatantly misleading rhetoric in order to achieve his political ends. At worse, that president has actually been hoodwinked by dishonest posturing.
To a large degree, this dynamic has been responsible for the economic disappointments during the Obama Administration. Very early in his first term, President Obama fatefully concluded that the deficit scolds were right. Or, again, he might have simply decided that he had to act as if the scolds were right, because he did not think that he could be reelected if he defied them. In either case, the president surrounded himself from Day One with people who were spouting (or at least tolerating others’ spouting) the usual nonsense about government borrowing being the root of all evil.
In the end, then, does it matter whether the President of the United States knows anything about the policy issues that she or he will face? Does the existence of a pool of experienced advisors act as a fail-safe against the errors that an uninformed president and his political acolytes might attempt to commit, while similar groups of advisors drive the decisions of even an informed commander in chief?
What we have seen on the Republican side of the aisle over the last generation is that the advisors themselves are a problem, making matters worse rather than better. There is virtually no prospect that the nonsensical statements emanating from the campaigns of Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, or John Kasich, or Jeb Bush, or certainly Ben Carson are somehow not to be taken as an indication of what those candidates would try to do as president. If there are wise advisors out there, we have seen very little evidence of it among Republicans.
For Democrats, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have shown a marked tendency only to listen to one group of potential advisors, especially on economic policy. Moreover, they have both been all too willing to play along with rabble-rousing groups that poison the political conversation. Nominee-apparent Hillary Clinton is probably smarter than both her husband and Barack Obama, and she certainly studies the issues. She is, however, part of the universe of policy wonks who will constantly reinforce ideas that undermine economic growth and prosperity. We can only hope that, as president, she would prove Ronald Reagan’s 1984 apologists right (and his 1980 apologists wrong) by overriding what will surely be a torrent of bad economic advice from her party’s supposedly wise men.