I have no insight to add to the question of who will win tomorrow, especially given the presence around here of some genuine mavens in all things electoral. But I do have a thought about who deserves to win and why.
Deserving to win is not just a matter of being better than the other guy. Obviously, I vastly prefer Mitt Romney’s vision of government and American life to Barack Obama’s, and I think Obama has been a terrible president. But I also think Romney deserves to win because he could be a genuinely good president. I think that because Romney has shown himself in this campaign (let alone in his career before this campaign) to possess a crucial and rare ingredient in making a good president.
In 2006, while working as a White House staffer, I found myself seated next to the president’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, at an event. He asked me about some things he knew I was working on, and then he asked how I thought things were going in general. I answered (in retrospect quite inappropriately) that I frankly thought some important things that deserved the president’s attention didn’t seem to be getting it, and of course those just happened to be matters in my own policy bailiwick. Without a hint of the condescension that he could easily have offered (and that my statement clearly deserved), Bolten smiled and said that the hardest thing about the president’s job was prioritizing—telling the most important things on his plate apart from the somewhat less important. His answer was characteristically diplomatic, but also characteristically wise, and I’ve thought about it often in the course of this year’s presidential campaign.
There has been much to criticize about the Romney campaign this year, as there always is about any presidential campaign. But looking back on an almost completed election, I’m struck by how Romney has gotten some of the biggest things right.
Many (including myself) have been critical of the Romney campaign for not being aggressive enough in laying out a domestic policy vision and an agenda for getting us beyond the collapsing liberal welfare state. But the most important plank of such an agenda—the domestic policy challenge that matters most if we are to avert a fiscal catastrophe and replace liberal statism with conservative dynamism—is the challenge of Medicare reform. And on that front, Romney has shown more courage than any Republican presidential nominee in the history of the liberal welfare state—not only proposing a significant reform, but proposing just the right reform, and doing so despite countless warnings about the political risk. And he didn’t just propose it, but he pressed the Medicare issue when it mattered, and seems to have essentially defused
the political risk while helping make a market-based reform of Medicare the consensus Republican position. This has been, to put it mildly, no small feat.
Of course, Romney hasn’t achieved that by himself. The effort was launched and perhaps chiefly advanced by Paul Ryan. And here we get to the second good sign about Romney the prioritizer. Personnel is policy, and it is more than policy: Staffing the government with the right people is perhaps the most important thing any president does, precisely because he has to prioritize and can’t handle every issue himself. And when it came to the most important personnel decision of the campaign—choosing his running mate—Romney made a choice that showed he understands just how important personnel can be in politics, and how important the policy challenges of this moment are. He chose the most impressive congressional Republican, and the one who has made his name by being substantive and serious and has advanced an agenda that has become the conservative policy agenda of our time. When it mattered, Romney showed he has the right priorities.
And when it mattered most, he also showed he can step up and make his case to the public. When, following a lackluster convention, Romney’s advisors said they would turn the campaign around in the debates, that notion seemed like implausible grasping by a losing campaign. And perhaps it was. But Romney did it. In the only true one-on-one matchups of the presidential election—the only time when the candidates themselves, each shorn of his vast apparatus of aides, stand before one another and the public expressly—Romney not only won the day, he undid months of negative advertising and completely transformed the race. He knew what moments mattered most, and in those moments he was ready.
When it has come to policy, personnel, and performance, Romney has shown an ability to distinguish the most important from less important matters and moments and to get the big things right. This amounts, of course, to a very specific kind of praise. It doesn’t suggest that Romney would be a visionary leader or a man of big ideas. Indeed, even his greatest admirers do not suggest this about Mitt Romney. If he wins, he would enter the presidency having created the most restrained and limited expectations of any president in recent memory, which to my mind is a very good thing. He promises to help fix some particular problems. This is a stark contrast to Barack Obama’s promise to turn back the seas and transform America. And it would be a much needed contrast, because Obama’s grandiosity has been at the core of his failures as president, and as a candidate for re-election.
Many people have wondered this year at Obama’s smallness—at the contrast between the man of large vision who ran in 2008 and the man of nasty pettiness who has run this year. But those are just two sides of the same coin. Naiveté and cynicism—the two modes of Obama and his supporters—are not opposites. They are both functions of the same lack of proportion. Their opposite is, roughly, prudence: a sense of proportion, which is very much connected to the ability to prioritize. Such prudence is the essence of executive prowess.
It is of course a very good thing when such prudence is married to visionary, principled leadership and insight. But it is also a very rare thing. Executive prudence of a more conventional sort is perhaps less dazzling but it is still rare enough in politicians. And as it has expressed itself in this campaign (and in his career), it suggests that Mitt Romney would be good at some of the most important things about the presidency—at distinguishing the crucial from the less important of his many tasks, at choosing the right people, and at stepping up to the big moments. Barack Obama has plainly failed on each of those fronts.
That’s why, whoever wins tomorrow, Mitt Romney has shown that he deserves to win this election. He deserves to win not just for being a better choice than his opponent, but also for giving us some reason to believe that he may really be up to some of the daunting challenges confronting whoever will be president in the coming years. No leader can do everything he should, and no presidency can be devoid of countless failures, embarrassments, and missed opportunities. The question is whether a leader is basically focused on the right priorities, and whether a president gets the big things right. The Romney campaign has suggested that Mitt Romney could well be up to doing that. And in the process of running a campaign that suggests this, he has also shown himself to be a decent, serious person with a high-minded sense of what it is to run for office. His opponent has not. No one could mistake him for the messiah, but Romney could be a pretty good chief executive for the federal government. And that’s saying a lot.
He deserves to win. That doesn’t mean he will win, of course. But for what it’s worth, I think he will.