Several debates ago, during a response by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, it dawned on me that he is running for the wrong office.
Santorum is a born legislator. His mastery of legislative prerogatives, strategies, and tactics is unmatched by anyone else on the debate stage. His head and heart are fully engaged in promoting his social conservative values and—this is key—doing so by proposing legislation, maneuvering it through Congress, and passing it into law. Santorum’s legislative prowess and his impressive background in national security have been on display at every debate, notwithstanding his peevish complaints that he doesn’t receive enough air time.
Isn’t there an open Senate or House seat we can find for him? His talents as a smart, hard-working legislator are being squandered in what will likely prove a futile quest for executive office.
Then there is Newt Gingrich, whose meteoric rise in recent polls has taken everyone (except him) by surprise. Despite his 20-year career as a member of the House of Representatives, including 4 years as Speaker, Gingrich comes across in debates not as a seasoned legislator but as a condescending professor.
A pseudo-intellectual, he revels in tossing out “big ideas” and launching “national conversations” about topics that divide, distract, and deviate from the duties of the high office he seeks. When caught in an unforced error of political misjudgment, he typically retreats behind his self-proclaimed role “as a historian.”
Thus, at a debate in Iowa earlier this month Gingrich insisted that he was speaking “as a historian” when he called the Palestinians “an invented people.” The international consternation that ensued was predictable. But Gingrich, appearing on national television as a presidential candidate, seemed not to care. He dogmatically refused to modulate his statement, even after his own spokesman had tried to do just that earlier in the day.
Similarly, when Gingrich promises that, as president, he will remake the federal judiciary according to his superior “historical” interpretation of the Constitution—overturning more than 200 years of judicial precedent—he stirs up needless confusion and controversy. He indulges in reckless sensationalism when he talks about sending out marshals to haul federal judges before Congress if they issue rulings that he opposes or thinks the general public opposes.
The upcoming election isn’t an academic exercise, and Gingrich isn’t running for professor laureate of constitutional history. He is running for President of the United States. As the country’s chief executive, he would be in a position to bring the fearsome police power of the State against duly appointed federal judges with whom he disagrees. Be careful what you wish for, is all I can say. And let’s hope Barack Obama isn’t taking notes.
A lively classroom discussion about the separation of powers is one thing; a national constitutional crisis is another. Gingrich injudiciously obscures the crucial distinction between academic speculation and executive action. This tells me everything I need to know about his temperamental unsuitability to wield power as the nation’s top executive.
At the outset of the 2012 presidential election contest, some in the GOP expressed their preference for nominating an individual who has been a state governor. With good reason they argued that governors have the most relevant public-sector executive experience to prepare them for the presidency. Obama’s dismal record has made us wary of choosing a legislator, law professor, and speechifier who suddenly vaults to the nation’s highest office without a day’s worth of meaningful executive experience.
It is a legitimate question, however, whether public-sector executive experience alone is the optimal credential for a president at this juncture. The country remains mired in the economic doldrums, with record unemployment, widespread business uncertainty, unprecedented national debt, massive budget deficits, and Europe on the brink of an epic fiscal meltdown.
Are Republicans, of all people, going to pass over the American private sector when hunting for a chief executive to lead the nation through this crisis?
Can’t we find someone to run for president who understands financial challenges from having worked on them in the dynamic market-driven economy? Someone who, in addition to serving as a governor, has successfully managed a profitable private-sector company? Someone who has what it takes to turn around a troubled enterprise and try to save it from bankruptcy? Someone who knows how to weigh the data, define the mission, identify the action steps, select and build the team, make the tough decisions, and execute the plan? Someone whose co-workers over 25 years, almost without exception, respect and admire?
Oh, wait, that candidate is already in the race.
21 December 2011
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