Right this minute we are watching a floundering government attempt to deal with an extremely serious, unusually complicated economic crisis which will likely have huge, negative consequences. Let us stipulate that pretty much no one knows what the best possible solution is. Pundits don’t. The president is relying on his experts. Experts disagree. Economists fall back on their larger (political) presumptions at such moments. One in 100 — or fewer — politicians understand all this. Neither candidate to lead the country does.
There is not going to be a good answer, and there certainly won’t be a painless one. This makes things exceptionally hard for a Congress which usually abdicates at tough moments, or throws our money at problems, without much regard for outcomes. But the consequences of pissing away $700 billion — with no guarantees about how much mitigating of economic bad times to come it will buy– is rightfully frightening, both to those who face re-election, and to those who care about the principles of liberty, which have always required that the state not be in direct control of the economy.
So, this is why, when it comes to choosing our leaders, we are right, in the end, to rely on “gut” before experience — even when a politician has both. We need to know a politician’s gut instincts. And we need to look at our own most basic sense of who will keep us safer. Not who will show the world we are nice guys. Or who is more intellectual and capable of expressing ideas in the form of large abstractions. Experience should make it easier to lead. Having seen it go around before should make it easier to grope toward a useful conclusion this time. But experience is only helpful when people have learned the right lessons.
If you have to choose between experience and gut? Gut. That is why I would take Sarah Palin over Joe Biden — who, despite 35 years of experience is, fundamentally useless as a leader any day. Not that I think Palin has a clue about this problem. But I think she’s more likely to respond to the right reasoning. She has shown, in Alaska, that she values doing the right thing ahead of her personal standing. That’s worth knowing.
Actually, what this crisis, and today’s vote highlights most glaringly, isn’t that our economy has failed. It is that our leadership has failed. The real problem is that most of our leaders have spent their authority, and have lost our trust.
The Administration, which has frittered away most of the claim to authority that it began with on domestic policy, has put it’s offer on the table. President Bush went the extra dozen miles to accommodate the views of House Republicans and Democrats. I wish to trust Bush, because I think he is stand-up guy. But his record on spending makes that near impossible. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a genuinely smart guy, disqualified himself by asking for $700 billion with no oversight, which isn’t a democratic instinct. Furthermore, he comes from the sector that is crashing and his perspective and interests are suspect.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (who strangely was never subjected to the Palin treatment, despite no better personal credentials, 5 kids, and a very rich husband) has failed in her leadership. Arguably she holds her position largely because of her excessive partisan regard – which serves her ill when real concensus is needed. Barney Frank comes from the support Freddie/Fannie at all costs, school of congressional leadership. Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid clearly knows nothing about the economics of the crisis, but is always willing to play politics. Furthermore, they are all too nasty, and eager to score points, to trust.
Barack Obama trusts himself too much. And he trusts Pelosi and Reid, who put him up as the mouthpiece in Friday’s bipartisan meeting at the White House. And his instinct is to distance himself from this mess. Bad instinct. This is what it looks like when the buck stops.
Who does John McCain trust? I think he trusted the conservative “House Republicans.” I thought he was right. I want to believe that John Boehner and Eric Cantor and their people are principled conservatives who are realistic enough to make compromises to avert greater catastrophe.
The problem is not that John McCain didn’t broker a deal that held. No one did. The problem is that he hasn’t come out with a clear, serious speech to let voters know what his lodestars are, and where he wants to go with this crisis. He probably has reasons. But they don’t matter. If he wants our trust, now is the time to start talking straight. We need general guidelines and specifics. It would be helpful to know who he listens to. Absent that, it’s hard to trust anything beyond the fact that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.