Six years ago a man unsuited both by intellect and by temperament for high office somehow ended up running the country.
How did that happen? First, he got the Republican nomination by locking up the big money early.
Then, he got within chad-and-butterfly range of the White House because the public, enthusiastically encouraged by many in the news media, treated the presidential election like a high school popularity contest. The successful candidate received kid-gloves treatment — and a free pass on the fuzzy math of his policy proposals — because he seemed like a fun guy to hang out with, while the unsuccessful candidate was subjected to sniggering mockery over his clothing and his mannerisms.
Today, with thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead thanks to presidential folly, with Al Qaeda resurgent and Afghanistan on the brink, you’d think we would have learned a lesson. But the early signs aren’t encouraging.
“Presidential elections are high school writ large, of course,” declared Newsweek’s Howard Fineman last month. Oh, my goodness. But in fairness to Mr. Fineman, he was talking about the almost content-free rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — a rivalry that, at this point, is mainly a struggle over who’s the bigger celebrity and gets to lock up the big donors.
Enough already. Let’s make this election about the issues. Let’s demand that presidential candidates explain what they propose doing about the real problems facing the nation, and judge them by how they respond.
I know the counterargument: you can’t tell in advance what challenges a president may face, so you should vote for the person, not the policy details. But how do you judge the person? Public images can be deeply misleading: remember when Dick Cheney had gravitas? The best way to judge politicians is by how they respond to hard policy questions.
So here are some questions for the Democratic hopefuls. (I’ll talk about the Republicans another time.)
First, what do they propose doing about the health care crisis? All the leading Democratic candidates say they’re for universal care, but only John Edwards has come out with a specific proposal. The others have offered only vague generalities — wonderfully uplifting generalities, in Mr. Obama’s case — with no real substance.
Second, what do they propose doing about the budget deficit? There’s a serious debate within the Democratic Party between deficit hawks, who point out how well the economy did in the Clinton years, and those who, having watched Republicans squander Bill Clinton’s hard-won surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy and a feckless war, would give other things — such as universal health care — higher priority than deficit reduction.
Mr. Edwards has come down on the anti-hawk side. But which side are Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on? I have no idea.
Third, what will candidates do about taxes? Many of the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Should they be extended, in whole or in part? And what do candidates propose doing about the alternative minimum tax, which will hit tens of millions of middle-class Americans unless something is done?
Fourth, how do the candidates propose getting America’s position in the world out of the hole the Bush administration has dug? All the Democrats seem to be more or less in favor of withdrawing from Iraq. But what do they think we should do about Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan? And what will they do if the lame-duck administration starts bombing Iran?
The point of these questions isn’t to pose an ideological litmus test. The point is, instead, to gauge candidates’ judgment, seriousness and courage. How they answer is as important as what they answer.
I should also say that although today’s column focuses on the Democrats, Republican candidates shouldn’t be let off the hook. In particular, someone needs to make Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have become the Republican front-runner, stop running exclusively on what he did on 9/11.
Over the last six years we’ve witnessed the damage done by a president nominated because he had the big bucks behind him, and elected (sort of) because he came across well on camera. We need to pick the next president on the basis of substance, not image.