What sort of qualities might we conservatives wish for in our 2016 presidential candidate? For the sake of this exercise, let us strike the roster of allegedly potential candidates from our minds, leaving only a blank slate on which we might project the prime attributes of this ideal figure. I am speaking not of political positions – I am thinking of temperament.
When I engage in this sort of philosophizing, I cannot help but think that the one indispensable quality our next president should have is the ability to bridge the divide between the two political parties, even at the expense of their respective extremes.
I am speaking of someone willing to disregard the extremists within both parties; that is, those who refuse to compromise under any circumstances.
Being opposed to a good idea simply because it is your enemy’s idea, while politically expedient in the short term, will in the long run prove detrimental to the politician’s brand; that is, to their party.
In any individual incidence, a refusal to compromise may be a noble endeavor. When, however, it is the only reaction a particular candidate ever has to a proposal, the electorate becomes weary. Most Americans are idealists. This is a nationally inherited trait, just as stoicism is for the Russians. A steadfast refusal to compromise might play in Peoria-grad, but Americans do not often welcome stubborn cynicism in their leaders, even when they expect it.
On the one hand, consider a leader like George W. Bush, who left office with the lowest approval rating of any president in recent memory except for Nixon. During his tenure as commander-in-chief, Bush seldom wavered on anything, especially in his first term. Karl Rove and his other political handlers made this an asset during the 2004 campaign, praising their candidate’s single-mindedness in the face of adversity and christening their opponent “Flip-flopper,” a metaphor so effective that whenever I bear witness to the Secretary of State’s grave countenance on cable news I cannot help but still think of beach shoes and dying fish. Yet by the end of Bush’s presidency a shell-shocked and over-stimulated public had had enough and rejected the stubborn and uncompromising McCain, whom even torture could not bend, in favor of the cool and reasonable-seeming Barack Obama, who, of course, went on to codify and legitimize such legal outliers such as surveillance, drone-bombings, and Obama care largely in secret, avoiding the need to appear irresolute.
On the other hand, consider a leader such as Ronald W. Reagan, who remains one of the most popular presidents precisely because of his appeal to both political parties and willingness to compromise if necessary for the sake of his country. For example, Reagan was much lauded during his presidency for being willing to work with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, famously calling him a friend “after 6 pm.” Although the two disagreed bitterly over domestic policy, they were able to work together on issues such as the budget in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Reagan raised taxes numerous times and still office with an approval rating of almost 70%.
Can you imagine Obama and John Boehner being friends after 6pm? Of course not.
If you disagree and believe that the sort of intransigence exhibited by Senator Ted Cruz (R), Representative Alan Grayson (D), and others should be rewarded, ask yourself this: if a loved one, a child or a spouse, was being held at gunpoint by a maniac, would you compromise to save their lives? The Tea Party politicians who contributed to the recent government shutdown, whatever their motivations, are perceived by the American public at large as individuals who were willing to shut down the government and let the country default on its debt – possibly wrecking the domestic economy, not to mention the global one – because they were petulant the about their impotence to stop Obamacare. Contrast this with the once immovable George W. Bush, who famously said at the end of his term that he “abandoned free-market principles to save the free market system” when discussing the bailouts for the auto industry and the banks.
The preferred policies of a politician may not matter as much as the degree to which that president seems willing to communicate with their enemies to solve problems and compromise if necessary. Obama is admittedly as bad as Bush is when it comes to compromise in practice, although on the campaign trail he cynically promised otherwise.
Bill Clinton, sometimes demonstrated this sort of quality: recall “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Bubba’s concessions to Republicans including tax cuts, a balanced budget, and Medicare before the government shutdown of 1995 ( He and Reagan remain popular and beloved figures in the American political imagination while Obama and Dubya appear petty and obstinate in comparison.
Leaving our blank state for a moment, ask yourself if any of the current crop of GOP 2016 presidential candidates exhibit this kind of magnanimous and Reaganesque openness. There is no reason for Democratic and Republican candidates to be enemies after 6pm as well as before it. The political culture in Washington is poisonous, a toxic stew of vituperative talk radio and character assassination. As I have discussed frequently in recent editorials, this degree of animosity cannot be contained. The chickens come home to roost and rank division between the parties is mirrored within the parties. The Republicans have a civil war on their hands. These Yorks and Lancasters are badly in need of someone to mediate a compromise between them so that they can work together, for the good of the country, with a Democratic party similarly damaged by internecine strife and reflexive stubbornness.
What would Ronald Reagan do?
It’s worth contemplating.
What Chris Christie, or Rand Paul, or Marc Rubio, might do under these circumstances might be less so. You may be able to convince me otherwise, however. I’m open-minded.
Thomas Davis – NEWSslinger Contributor