Critical Thinking on Presidential Candidates

I have been arguing to all who’d listen that in the end of the day, the 3 remaining candidates are all formidable possible leaders and we are lucky to end with them.  They all have some weaknesses, but overall their strengths greatly outweigh their weaknesses.

There is nothing like a well-thought-out set of op-eds to cause you some pause.

With regard to Obama, David Ignatius raises some valid and challenging questions here.

With regard to McCain, George Will poses 5 core questions to him here.

And to Clinton, besides the many columns that Frank Rich and many others have been writing, this Wall Street Journal article from Peggy Noonan is quite devastating.  Clinton is a real policy-wonk, but inspiring the nation is a critical aspect of any presidency and there is doubt whether she can accomplish, or whether her presidency would be more defined by division.

Which of them will answer these questions best?

The articles are also pasted below.

Questions For John McCain

By George Will

WASHINGTON — Foreign policy has slipped to the periphery of presidential politics, displaced by a nonexistent recession as the voters’ preoccupation. Come autumn, however, Iraq and Iran might be central subjects, Iraq as a bigger problem for the Democratic nominee than for John McCain, and Iran as a problem for McCain. And the presidency might be won by the candidate who embraces a modest conception of that office.

Regarding Iraq, Democrats have won a retrospective argument: Most Americans regret the invasion and execrate the bungled aftermath. But that will not enable the Democratic nominee to argue prospectively that what America’s sacrifices have achieved should be put at risk by the essentially unconditional withdrawal of forces that both Democratic candidates promise.

Nancy Pelosi says the surge has not "produced the desired effect." "The" effect? The surge has produced many desired effects, including a pacification that is a prerequisite for the effect — political reconciliation — to which Pelosi refers.

The Democratic nominee will try to make a mountain out of McCain’s molehill of an assertion that it would be "fine" with him if some U.S. forces are in Iraq for "maybe 100" years, if Americans are not being harmed. Voters are not seething or even restive because U.S. forces have been in Japan and Germany for 63 years and in South Korea for 58. McCain’s real vulnerabilities are related to four questions about Iran and one about Iraq. By answering all five he will reveal what constitutional limits — if any — he accepts on the powers of the presidency regarding foreign and military policies.

First, he says war with Iran would be less dreadful than an Iran with nuclear arms. Why does he think, as his statement implies, that a nuclear Iran would be, unlike the Soviet Union, undeterrable and not susceptible to long-term containment until internal dynamics alter the regime?

Second, many hundreds of bombing sorties — serious warfare — would be required to justify confidence that Iran’s nuclear program had been incapacitated for the foreseeable future. Does McCain believe that a president is constitutionally empowered to launch such a protracted preventive war without congressional authorization?

Third, why would any president not repelling a sudden attack want to enter the pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government?

Fourth, President Bush has spoken of the importance of preventing Iran from having "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Does McCain think it is feasible and imperative to prevent, or destroy, such "knowledge"?

The fifth question concerns Iraq and Congress’ constitutional role in the conduct of foreign policy. On Nov. 26, 2007, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a "Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship." Pursuant to this declaration, a status of forces agreement — or perhaps something substantially more sweeping than such agreements often are — is to be completed by July 31. The declaration says that the agreement will include "security assurances and commitments" requiring the United States to defend Iraq "against internal and external threats," and to "support" Iraq’s attempts to "defeat and uproot" all "terrorist groups," including "al-Qaeda, Saddamists, and all other outlaw groups," and to "destroy their logistical networks and their sources of finance."

In a Dec. 19 letter to the president, Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said constitutional law and "over 200 years of practice" establish that such an agreement would require congressional authorization in the form of a treaty, statute or concurrent resolution by both houses. Sen. Hillary Clinton has introduced, and Sen. Barack Obama is co-sponsoring, legislation to deny funds to implement any such agreement that is not approved by Congress. Hundreds of such agreements, major (e.g., NATO) and minor (the Reagan administration’s security commitment to the Marshall Islands and Micronesia), have been submitted to Congress. Does McCain agree with Clinton and Obama?

"War," wrote Randolph Bourne in 1918, "is the health of the state." War especially enhances presidential power, which probably is one reason why Theodore Roosevelt, Bourne’s contemporary and one of McCain’s heroes, relished war. "No triumph of peace," Roosevelt said, "is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war." Roosevelt, who also said, "I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands," was the archetype of the modern, hyperkinetic president.

McCain, who sometimes seems to regard his enthusiasms and disgusts as self-legitimizing and grounds for government action, probably would be TR’s sort of president. The Democratic nominee will probe, and voters have nine months to ponder, the implications of that probability.

The Obama Mystery

By David Ignatius
Sunday, February 17, 2008; B07

"Why is the press going so easy on Barack Obama?" asks a prominent Democratic Party strategist, echoing a criticism frequently made by the Clinton campaign. It’s a fair question, and now that Obama appears to be the front-runner in terms of his delegate count, he deserves a closer look, especially from people like me who have written positively about him.

The reason to look closely now, quite simply, is to avoid buyer’s remorse later.

Obama is a phenomenon in American politics — a candidate who has ignited an enthusiasm among young people that I haven’t seen in decades. He promises a nation in which, as his supporters chant, "race doesn’t matter." And for a world that is dangerously alienated from American leadership, he offers a new face that could dispel negative assumptions about America — and in that sense boost the nation’s standing and security.

But these are symbolic qualities. What Obama would actually do as president remains a mystery in too many areas. Before he completes what increasingly looks like a march to the Democratic nomination, Obama needs to clarify more clearly what lies behind the beguiling banner marked "change."

Let’s start with Obama’s economic policies. Like all the major candidates, he has a Web site brimming with plans and proposals. But it has been hard to tell how these different strands come together. Is Obama a "New Democrat," in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who would look skeptically at traditional welfare programs? Is he a neopopulist, in the style of his former rival John Edwards, who would make job protection and tax equity his top domestic priorities? Or is he a technocrat, whose economic answers wouldn’t be all that different from those of Hillary Clinton?

I’m still puzzled about where to locate Obama on this policy map. Until the past few weeks, I would have put him somewhere between "New Democrat" and "technocrat." But as he reaches for votes in big industrial states, Obama has been sounding more like Edwards. He proposed a middle-class tax cut a few months ago that would provide a credit of up to $1,000 per family. That’s a big policy change that deserves real debate.

Obama added more Edwardsian flourishes in a speech Wednesday at an auto plant in Wisconsin. He called for a $150 billion program to develop "green collar" jobs and new energy sources. Meanwhile, to fix all the highways and bridges of our automotive society, he proposed a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would spend $60 billion over 10 years. Obama should be pressed on whether these big programs are affordable for an economy that appears to be in a tailspin.

Foreign policy is the area on which Obama has been longest on rhetoric and shortest on details. I’ve always liked his line about Iraq, that "we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." And when I asked Obama last summer what this might mean in practice, he talked about the need for a residual force in and around Iraq and for a gradual, measured pace of troop withdrawals. But in recent months, his tone has suggested a speedier and more decisive departure from Iraq. I fear that Obama is creating public expectations for a quick solution in Iraq that cannot responsibly be achieved.

With any candidate, there’s always a question about the quality of his advisers. Hillary comes prepackaged as Clinton II, with a retinue of aides-in-waiting that is at once her strength and disadvantage. Obama’s advisers are a mixed group, but I hear some complaints from policy analysts. One of his leading foreign policy gurus, Anthony Lake, was widely criticized as national security adviser in the first Clinton administration. His role does not reassure people who wonder what substance lies behind the "change" mantra.

To understand why Obama needs tougher scrutiny now, we need only recall his political avatar, President John F. Kennedy. Like Obama, JFK had served a relatively short time in the Senate without compiling a significant legislative record. He was young and charismatic, but uncertain in his foreign and domestic policies, and during his first 18 months JFK was often rebuffed at home and abroad. The CIA suckered him into a half-baked invasion of Cuba. And Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded after an initial meeting that Kennedy was so weak and uncertain that he could be pushed around — a judgment that led to the Cuban missile crisis.

Obama’s inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it’s a real issue. He should use the rest of this campaign to give voters a clearer picture of how he would govern — not in style but in substance.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address


Peggy Noonan’s –

Confidence or Derangement?
February 15, 2008; Page W18

"This is death by a thousand cuts." That’s what they keep saying about Hillary Clinton.

Think of what this week was for her. She awoke each day having to absorb new sentences in a paragraph of woe:

[Confidence or Derangement?]

Three more primary losses, not even close. Now it’s eight in a row. A slide in the national polls. Staff shakeup: soap-opera-watching campaign manager out, deputy out. Bill’s former campaign manager, David Wilhelm, jumps for Barack Obama. Josh Green, in a stunning piece that might be called a meticulously reported notebook dump, says, in The Atlantic, that Mrs. Clinton made personnel decisions based only on loyalty, not talent and skill. (There’s a lot of that in the Bush White House. The loyalty obsession is never a sign of health.) The Wall Street Journal reports "internal frictions" flaring in the open, with Clinton campaign guru Mark Penn yelling, "Your ad doesn’t work!" to ad maker Mandy Grunwald, who fires back, "Oh, it’s always the ad, never the message." (This is a classic campaign argument. The problem is almost always the message. Getting the message right requires answering this question: Why are we here? This is the hardest question to answer in politics. Most staffs, and gurus, don’t know or can’t say.) On a conference call Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters Mrs. Clinton simply cannot catch up. It is "next to impossible" for her to get past him on pledged delegates, she’d need "a blowout victory" of 20 to 30 points in the coming states, the superdelegates will "ratify" what the voters do. (I wrote in my notes, "not gloating–asserting as fact.") Within the hour Mr. Plouffe’s words were headlined on Politico, made Drudge, and became topic one on the evening news shows. Veteran Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier took a stab at an early postmortem in what seemed a long-suppressed blurt: The Clintons always treated party leaders as "an extension of their . . . ambitions," "pawns in a game of success and survival. She may pay a high price for their selfishness soon." He cited party insiders: Superdelegates "won’t hesitate to ditch" Mrs. Clinton if her problems persist. To top it all off, Mrs. Clinton has, for 30 years, held deep respect for her husband’s political acumen, for his natural, instinctive sense of how to campaign. And he’s never let her down. Now he’s flat-footed, an oaf lurching from local radio interview to finger-pointing lecture. Where did the golden gut go? How did his gifts abandon him? Abandon her? Her campaign blew through $120 million. How did this happen?

The thing about that paragraph is it could be longer.

And it all happened in public and within her party. The dread Republicans she is used to hating, whom she seems to pay no psychic price for hating, and who hate her right back, are not doing this to her. Her party is doing this.

Her whole life right now is a reverse Sally Field. She’s looking out at an audience of colleagues and saying, "You don’t like me, you really don’t like me!"

Although of course she’s not saying it. Her response to what from the outside looks like catastrophe? A glassy-eyed insistence that all is well. "I’m tested, I’m ready, let’s make it happen!" she yelled into a mic on a stage in Texas on the night of her latest defeat. This is meant to look like confidence. Whether or not you wish her well probably determines whether you see it as game face, stubbornness or evidence of mild derangement.

* * *

In Virginia last Sunday, two days before the Little Tuesday voting, she suggested her problem is that she’s not a big phony. "People say to me all the time, ‘You’re so specific. . . . Why don’t you just come and, you know, really just give us one of those great rhetorical flourishes and then, you know, get everybody all whooped up.’ "

When she said it, I thought it might be a sign that Mrs. Clinton was beginning to accept the idea that she might lose. I thought it was a way of explaining to others–a way of explaining to herself–why things hadn’t worked. A riff that wasn’t a riff but a marker, a rationale for a loss, an explanation of why she failed that could be archived by television producers–Hillary on the trail, 2/10/08–and retrieved the day she concedes. A 15-second piece of videotape that tells the story her way, with an admission that was actually a boast. I could do that big rhetorical stuff if I wanted to, and if I thought it were best for our country. But I’m too earnest to do that, too sincere, and in fact too knowledgeable. That’s why I deal in specifics. Because I know them.

I thought it an acknowledgement that loss might come. But by Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Clinton was furiously stumping through Ohio using the same line of attack, but this time it wasn’t a marker. The race is about "speeches versus solutions." Her unnamed opponent stands for the first, she for the second. He is all "words," she is "action." "Words are cheap," she said.

If they were so cheap, her inability to marshal them would not have cost her so dearly.

She has also taken to raising boxing gloves and waving them triumphantly from the podium. Is this a fruitful way to go? It’s her way, bluster and combat. People do what they know how to do.

A better way might be honesty. I say this in the sense that an old Richard Nixon hand used it when he said, "Nixon doesn’t always think honesty is the best policy, but he does think it’s a policy." He saw it as a strategic gambit, to be used like any other.

But imagine if she tried honesty and humility. When everyone in America knows you’re in a dreadful position, admit you’re in a dreadful position. Don’t lie about it and make them roll their eyes, tell the truth and make them blink.

* * *

As in: "Look, let’s be frank. A lot of politics is spin, for reasons we can all write books about. I’m as guilty as anyone else. But right now I’m in the fight of my life, and right now I’m not winning. I’m up against an opponent who’s classy and accomplished and who has captured the public imagination. I’ve had some trouble doing that. I’m not one of those people you think of when you hear a phrase like ‘the romance of history.’ But I think I bring some things to the table that I haven’t quite managed to explain. I think I’ve got a case to be made that I haven’t quite succeeded in making. And I’m going to ask you for one more try. Will you listen? And if I convince you, will you help me? Because I need your help."

Could Mrs. Clinton do something like this? I doubt it. She’d think it concedes too much and would look weak. But maybe it would show an emotional suppleness, and a characterological ability to see things as they are, which is always nice in a president.

And no one would say it was deranged. They might, in fact, feel sympathy. And Mrs. Clinton has always seemed to enjoy that.

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