Politics & Policy

The Case for a Boring Man

Calvin Coolidge
Barack Obama brings to mind the supposed Chinese curse: “May you live in exciting times.”

As I was lunching with a few conservative political types earlier this week, the subject turned, as it does, to the 2016 field. When the name of a highly regarded former governor came up, the judgment was unequivocal: “He’s just so . . . boring.” That was not intended as an endorsement.

It should be.

Barack Obama has been anything but boring. “May you live in exciting times” may be a fake Chinese curse, but the wisdom communicated therein is real. Thought experiment: Consider the presidency of Barack Obama from the point of view of the sort of person who is likely to support such men. Having vanquished George W. Bush, he has now given us: a military mess in Iraq complete with the deployment of U.S. troops and a mission that is probably unachievable; the continuing disintegration of Afghanistan and its reversion to a jihadist safe haven; an economy that is shrinking significantly and probably is dipping back into recession; a defense and intelligence apparatus that is abusing its powers and the trust of the American people in ways that are not obviously related to defeating terrorist plots; millions without health insurance; millions out of work; corruption in our public institutions, ranging from the IRS to our universities; a self-aggrandizing political elite that is busy enriching itself through the vulgar exploitation of political connections while incomes for ordinary Americans stagnate or decline; etc. There has been a great deal of excitement, but if you voted for Obama because you were angry about the wars, the surveillance state, and the economy, things aren’t looking any better at all.

The most boring president of the modern era probably was Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration was marked by relative peace, prosperity, and confidence in the effectiveness and integrity of our institutions. The most boring president ever surely was Calvin Coolidge, who pinched pennies and kept at his plow, more or less leaving the country free to go about its own business, which turned out to be an excellent economic program. Our most exciting recent presidents? John Kennedy, who was privately corrupt and publicly inept; Richard Nixon, who was privately corrupt and publicly corrupt; Bill Clinton, who combined the worst features of Kennedy and Nixon, adding a distasteful dose of sanctimony to the mix.

What greeted Barack Obama during his ascent was excitement that bled into reverence — it is easy to forget, with the demigod in his now diminished state, that his admirers were literally singing hymns to him. Exciting, in the same way that a head-on collision in a speeding Cadillac is exciting — it’s a shame J. G. Ballard, the poet laureate of car crashes, was not around to write about this wreck.

“Want to know what kills more police than bullets and liquor?” the wise gangster Proposition Joe asks rhetorically while advising a colleague in The Wire. “Boredom. They just can’t handle that. You keep it boring — you keep it dead . . . boring.” But our voters, like The Wire’s fictional Baltimore cops, are addicted to excitement. Proposition Joe, who just wanted to make a living and be left alone, would be a Mitch Daniels man, I guarantee you. (No? He later praises his criminal colleagues for working out their differences in a businesslike fashion rather than shooting it out: “For a cold-assed crew of gangsters, y’all carried it like Republicans.”)

There are two broad categories of Republicans who are running for president in 2016: senators and governors. Senator Rand Paul is the man with the views closest to my own, but I have a strong bias in favor of governors. The Senate, particularly if you are in the minority, is a place to make speeches, to think big thoughts and construct grand philosophies — which, in anything but the smallest of doses, constitutes vice. Talk to a senator from any party or political tendency, and you can count on an interesting conversation. Governors? Dead boring. Even the colorful ones, such as Texas’s Rick Perry: Get Governor Perry started on the specifics of tort reform or his economic-development programs, and his new glasses start to make sense: He may have some big ideas about the Tenth Amendment, but his days are filled with governor stuff: gloriously boring governor stuff.

The Republican party is a more ideologically demanding party than is its opposite number, which is generally a happy thing — philosophy should trump narrow interest-group calculation — but the downside of that is that in the presidential primaries governors are at an inherent disadvantage vis-à-vis senators and other legislators. A senator, especially a senator in the minority, never has to compromise; under Harry Reid’s management, Republican senators really can’t do very much, so they don’t do very much — other than make exciting speeches. There’s no upside to doing anything else. Governors, on the other hand, have to do things — they have to run their states. Some of them, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have to work with Democrat-dominated states and electorates that do not vote very much like Texans or Oklahomans. When something exciting happens to a governor, it’s generally bad news. The best executive operations are like the best technology: When it’s working right, you hardly even know that it’s there.

I myself don’t have a 2016 candidate, but I’ll say this: I don’t want an exciting one. I don’t need to be inspired and don’t desire to be awed or ruled. I want what has been missing these past years: a responsible, sober, honest, predictable federal government, one that recognizes its own limits — constitutional and epistemic — and under which the president is not a hero but a steward.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.

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