Speaking Prudence to Power

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“The choice you make this November,” implored Governor Mitt Romney in a recent address in Iowa, “will shape great things, historic things, and those things will determine the most intimate and important aspects of every American life and every American family.”

To this we may respond as the kids would: “Really?”

Romney’s claim of the high—make that “limitless”—stakes in this election suggests one of two conclusions.  Either it is preposterous or democracy is diseased.  “Both” may be the likely answer, but in any event, if Romney believes his own statement, he ought to be waging a full-throated campaign against its premise.  It cannot possibly be healthy for a political community for “the most intimate and important aspects” of everyone’s lives to be at stake in an election.  Nor, for the record, are they in this one.  That Romney accepts the premise with apparent satisfaction rather than sounding the alarm it justifies is evidence of what I recently described in this space as the institutional narcissism of the Presidency and its concomitant cause: power.

Romney is hardly alone here.  The Obama camp has consistently exaggerated the importance of this election.  So have media organizations, such as Dan Rather’s claim that this election “may prove to be the most important in at least half a century.” And other observers: A recent solicitation from the Claremont Institute, for example, spoke portentously of “the most consequential election of the modern age.”  Virtually every party to this campaign—from candidates to pundits—shares an interest in inflating its importance.

Indeed, one is hard-pressed to recall a single presidential election that has not been described as historic in scope. There are myriad reasons for this inflationary tendency.  One neither motivates voters by describing an election as ordinary nor attracts viewers or readers by placing the news in calm perspective.  And there is, of course, no escaping the fact that elections have consequences, often considerable ones.

But no serious person can possibly believe the intimate contours of every citizen’s life will be indelibly shaped by the next President.  Nor can serious people want that to be the case.  We can be seriously sure, however, that the next President—whether Obama or Romney—will encourage that perception, and Bertrand de Jouvenel knows why: power.

Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power

The candidates would surely reject the claim that they are motivated by power, but the premise wields considerable predictive power, which is to say Presidents and aspirants to the White House display a suspiciously consistent tendency to describe the office in terms conducive to enhancing their power.  Thus Woodrow Wilson, whose vision of the Presidency is virtually unchallenged in contemporary politics: “The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.”  During his campaign for the White House, John F. Kennedy made this staggering claim about the President: “[U]pon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the government, all nations of the world.”  This is not a formula for limited Presidential power, nor is Romney’s claim that our intimate lives are up for grabs on November 6.

The underlying problem is the conflation of politics with the raw exercise of power.  Presidents are routinely judged by the impact they purport to have on people’s lives, and specifically by the extent to which they cause matters to be different than they were before, a standard I have elsewhere formulated as “s=c/t”: Success equals change divided by time.  The problem is that the standard—whose use by historians in evaluating presidential legacies is especially notorious—leaves little room for mere governance and none at all for what Aristotle and Burke called the seminal political virtue: prudence.  Indeed, the last President to talk seriously about prudence—the much maligned George H.W. Bush—was lampooned because of it.

None of this is to say no change is needed now.  Both candidates are predictably promising it.  But it may be worth reviewing the evidence that change is necessary, namely that the economy has been sluggish and the world remains a dangerous place.  Both of these factors are substantially beyond Presidential control, a fact candidates conspire to conceal.  We might consider the possibility that especially amid global economic storms, the business cycle is likely to come around at its own speed, with credit for it lamely accorded to whichever President bears the good fortune to be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when it happens.  Yet such thoughts are threatening to voters who seek all forms of personal security from politics and from political leaders who seek the power to provide it.

That so much power now rests in the hands of the President also goes a considerable distance toward explaining the polarization that has provoked the wringing of so many hands in recent years.  The issue is not merely that Americans are closely divided on intense issues.  To some extent they are, but they are also polarized—indeed, Presidents of both parties are routinely not merely criticized but despised—because so much power is at stake.

Let us perish this thought: The possibility exists that, in historical terms, this is a relatively ordinary election—important to be sure, but little more earthshaking than any other.  That thesis is tied to the prediction—heard here first—that the earth will remain on its axis the morning of November 7 regardless of what happens the night before.  The alternate claim—that “the most intimate and important aspects of every American life and every American family” are at risk because of an election—is far more troubling.