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Judgment Time

The events of the last several months underscore why, in electing people to high public office–and especially to the presidency–one needs to make a careful assessment of the person’s character and judgment rather than simply on a set of position papers or even their experience. Life is fluid and ever-changing, and life in politics is doubly so. For example, when George W. Bush took office, he thought, as did most everyone else, that his presidency would be domestically focused. The attacks on September 11, 2001 completely altered that assumption. He became a wartime president.

Now consider the 2008 election. Not long ago, it was generally believed that this campaign would be centered on national security issues, given that America is at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But the success of the surge led to a staggering drop in violence in Iraq, thus draining the war of its political potency. The fact that America has not been attacked in more than seven years also made terrorism a less salient issue in the minds of many voters. Soon it was conventional wisdom that domestic issues like health care would play a pivotal role in the election.

Then, during the summer, gas reached more than $4 a gallon and drilling for oil moved to political center stage. It was assumed that the economy was the main issue in the election, and energy was at the core of the nation’s economic concerns.

Then Russia invaded Georgia, and national security issues once again dominated the headlines. We were reminded of what a dangerous world it is we live in, and how world events can intrude at any moment. Once again the criterion for electing a commander-in-chief was thought to be national security experience.

And then last week, we found ourselves dealing with a credit crisis that threatened to (and still may) transmute into a world-wide financial catastrophe. Markets seized up, lending stopped, confidence dropped through the floor, and the world held its breath.

Suddenly both campaigns, which have had to constantly readjust their focus throughout the campaign, have been forced to deal with an issue no one anticipated as recently as a couple of weeks ago: the intricacies and complexities of an unprecedented and complicated financial challenge. And who can possibly tell what other issues will emerge during the next 42 days?

There’s a useful lesson for voters in all of this. A prerequisite for political success, both in campaigns and in governing, is long-range planning. Without a strategic vision, actions turn into a series of unrelated decisions, ad-hoc, crisis-oriented, poorly planned, and ultimately unsuccessful. As Henry Kissinger has said, you become prisoner to events. And that’s a bad place to be.

On the other hand, we are reminded every day that we live in a world that is untidy and unpredictable. New issues burst onto the scene like a thunderbolt emerging out of the clear blue sky. It is simply not reasonable to expect public officials to be well versed in every possible issue that may emerge during a presidency.

The core point, as I tried to argue here, is that position papers matter, speechifying matters, and debate performances matter. But instincts and intuition, judgment and character, worldview and temperament matter more. They are a good deal harder to discern in a candidate than where he stands on taxing capital gains, and sometimes qualities of greatness (or failure) are easily masked. But they are immensely important.

In thinking all this through we can help ourselves by turning to Edmund Burke. In his speech to the electors of Bristol, Burke spoke about the qualities we should look for in a representative. Among the qualities Burke mentioned was “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience . . . not his industry only, but his judgment.”

That is what Burke believed representatives owe us; and mature judgment is what we ought to look for in them.


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