Voting 101
Leadership Isn't Always Good Politics
02.18.2004 12:00 AM EST

Leadership isn't always good politics. Politicians are elected and re-elected based largely on their ability to say bland things that make voters happy. We need a stronger America! We need better heath care! We need to support our teachers!

Which is fine if you're a Senator because, after all, there are 99 others to pick up the slack. But leadership is essential in a President. When the unexpected happens, a President must step forward, be decisive, and tell the country where to go. More importantly, a President needs a vision for this country and its role in the world.

Both John Kerry and George W. Bush are campaigning heavily on their ability to lead. Kerry recently declared, "I have the leadership qualities. I have the vision for the country& I know how to lead this nation. And people want real leadership." But it is telling what Kerry usually points to as proof of that leadership - his heroic service in Vietnam over thirty-five years ago! What about recent examples? Well, in his eighteen years in the Senate there is no major piece of popular legislation with his name on it and while Kerry has flirted with some unpopular positions (on affirmative action and both Iraq wars, for example), he has always been quick to disown them once the political winds changed. Many have scratched their heads - how could such a brave twenty-three year old become such a timid Senator!

George Bush's central campaign theme is "steady leadership" but his three years in office can seem like anything but. Beyond the World Trade Center tragedy, the country has been beset by a stock market crash, corporate scandals, a sky rocketing budget deficit, and worldwide anger at the War in Iraq. Where is the steadiness in that?

Well, Bush has remained remarkably consistent in the face of these events. During the 2000 election, Bush promised to reduce taxes and he has done so, despite cries that the tax cuts were unaffordable or favored the wealthy. A better politician might put his finger to the wind and raise taxes on the rich. Bush hasnt and his unwavering belief that lower taxes across the board can rally the country out of the recession may come to look prophetic as the economy continues to improve.

Similarly, after September 11th Bush concluded that global terrorism was the great foreign policy issue of our time and that America had the weighty obligation to lead the world in the fight to destroy global terrorist networks and establish a lasting peace in the Middle East. The invasion of Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, and the invasion of Iraq - all of which faced heavy criticism at the time - came as a result. In the face of this criticism, a better politician might slow down, mollify his critics, apologize to France, and sacrifice a long-term vision for peace for the false promise of an easy solution. Bush has merely asked the country to trust his vision and leadership.

Some have criticized Bush for being too certain of his vision, unwilling to adjust to changing circumstances. This is, of course, a valid criticism and John Kerry presents an appealing alternative - his vision seems to be whatever you want it to be. Were you for authorizing the President to invade Iraq? Great, so was John Kerry! Were you against the invasion of Iraq? Fantastic, so was John Kerry! But what makes good election year politics may not fly in the Oval Office when the next crisis occurs and the country looks to one man for leadership.



Back to 'Electability' — The Magic Factor For The Democrats"

—Peter Olasky, Columbia University

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