Sunday, August 24, 2008

Forever Nuance

You would have thought that one of the great lessons of the 2004 presidential election was: whatever you do, do not do nuance. Apparently not.

The word has recently been floated as the best explanation of Barack Obama's less than stellar performance last week at Saddleback.

When the candidate did not give straight answers to Pastor Warren's straight questions, the pundits lined up to explain that his mind was so subtle and so brilliant that it sees all sides of all issues. Only a great mind can see the complexities of all issues and weight all of the possible and imaginable considerations. The pundits want us all to think that Obama's answers exist on a higher plane, one that would barely be intelligible to people from Kansas. That plane is the plane of nuance.

The defense is similar to one offered by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly. Fallows declared that Obama was not very good in the candidate debates because he was the thinking person's candidate. Just like Pres. Adlai Stevenson.

Nuance did not work last time and it will not work this time... and not because it's a French word.

A president leads by setting policy, not by inspiring people with lofty thoughts or impressing them with how smart he is. A candidate must tell us what he is going to do. When he traffics in nuance people think that he is inviting them to wallow in his indecision.

Perhaps this appeals to people who have done a lot of therapy. They, in particular, have learned to refrain from taking action, the better to introspect, to free associate, to express their feelings, and to develop their poetic side. If you follow those guidelines strictly you will not become president, you will become dysfunctional.

If the candidate does not have a clear policy to address a problem then people will rightly assume that he is either not going to do anything or that he is going to make it up as he goes along.

If public policy were based on nuance then we would be writing the history of the Cuomo presidency. Policy has to be clear, precise, concise, and intelligible to large numbers of people. Otherwise how will the staff understand what it is supposed to do.

Given the choice between a wrong policy and no policy, an intelligent electorate will usually choose the former. Not for lack of intelligence but because they are smart enough to know what makes for leadership.

Most people would rather do something than nothing. In 1948 Harry Truman ran a successful campaign against a do-nothing Congress.

Deep thinkers love nuance. They love to get lost in their thoughts because then they feel that they are masters of their domain. The more detached they are from reality the more they love nuance.

They love it when a candidate offers nuanced answers because that makes them feel that he is one of them, and that he is raising their status in the world. They love it when they can feel that he is bright like them. Unfortunately then end up supporting candidates who would rather be bright than president.

Policy is like what Hollywood producers call "high concept." Anyone who has ever pitched a screen play knows that it must have a concept, a one-sentence plot synopsis. An effective script, like an effective presidency, must have a unity of action.

A policy is not a theme; it is not an inspirational message. To grasp what it is, take a few examples. Among the better know policies is: containment. George Kennan first proposed this one-word policy as the guiding principle of American conduct of the Cold War. It was surely different from the allied policy in World War II, which was: unconditional surrender.

The New Deal was a series of policy proposals. So was the Contract with America. In 2006 Congressional election Democrats ran on an end-the-war policy. Republicans seemed to be running on more-of-the-same. Of course, the Democrats won.

Both McCain and Obama became presumptive nominees because they articulated clear Iraq policies. McCain revived his candidacy by proposing a policy called: the surge. Obama rode his policy of "end the war" to the Democratic nomination.

Of course, that policy debate is now past history. Both candidates now need to redefine themselves by proposing new policies to address other issues.

This is being played out in the current debate over energy independence. McCain and the Republicans have been winning the debate because their policy: Drill here; drill now... is much clearer and actionable than any Democratic alternative. We may not be able to drill out way out of the problem, but we are certainly not going to think out way out of it.

I invite anyone to explain the Obama energy policy in four words or less. The Democrats may be right; they may be wrong. They are not going to win an election on an incoherent set of contradictory ideas that appear to be a grab-bag for special interest groups.

Despite what David Brooks says, I do not think that the Obama campaign needs a theme. I also do not think that it has been losing ground because it has been ineffective at counterpunching. And I do not believe that Obama is being dragged down by the company he kept in the past.

No, Obama's problem is that his candidacy is not defined by any policies. His master themes are not policies. "Change" is not a policy; "hope" is not a policy. A grammatically incorrect book title-- I hope I am not the only one who has noticed that The Audacity of Hope is incorrect in English grammar-- does not lead to policies.

For the Obama convention to succeed it must go beyond stirring rhetoric and inspirational messages. As the McCain campaign has already figured out, these easily lend themselves to ridicule. Obama is running for Commander in chief, not pastor in chief.

Success or failure will be measured by whether or not you can say after the convention what Obama's policy proposals are.. in one sentence or less. If you cannot do that, get ready for Pres. McCain.

When democracy is at its best political debate and decision-making concerns alternative policies. Isn't this more uplifting than the notion that it is all an exercise in psychological manipulation, whether through a duel of competing personal narratives or a contest between alternative dramatic spectacles?

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