Possibly the dumbest argument against a governor for the GOP nominee in 2016 is that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a governor. This brainstorm from a popular right-wing radio host is the sort of jaw-dropping inanity that reminds you what happens when you stay hermetically sealed in the right-wing echo chamber. To respond: There is no Lincoln around. Honest. Given the choice between available ideologues who have accomplished nothing and conservative, successful governors, it might be a good idea, generally speaking, to go with the latter.
The comment betrays a fundamental disconnect on the right. They suppose thinking “right” (no-holds barred conservatism with no desire to appeal to the center) is the key to winning and governing. (Well, it’s not, unless they like losing and complaining afterward, which is a distinct possibility). Ideology without capacity and extremism without common sense are essentially what we have now and what got the GOP into the shutdown mess. It’s how radio talk show hosts succeed; it’s never been a formula for governing well. (Ronald Reagan, the idol of the far right, made all sorts of compromises, including signing a major immigration reform bill.)
Both the liberal pundit class and the right wing of the GOP see the presidency much as President Obama does. It is about big thoughts and big speeches, they would tell you. In fact, the presidency is about much more. It is instructive to understand which personal qualities and skills make good chief executives.
The better presidents in the modern era are experts at dealing with those with whom they disagree, rolling up their sleeves to make hard choices in tough negotiations, adjusting their world view based on real-world experience, exercising prudence and delivering unpleasant truths to supporters, taking half or three-quarters of a loaf, finding smart advisers (not yes men) and showing courage and determination when faced with politically unpopular but necessary decisions. Harry Truman supporting a Jewish state. Richard Nixon going to China. Bill Clinton conducting an air war in Europe. George W. Bush ignoring his own military men to rescue the United States from defeat in Iraq. None of these were functions of ideology; they were, to a large extent, improvisation based on the demands of the moment and examples of political fortitude.
I don’t suggest ideology is unimportant or that a candidate’s agenda should be disregarded. Ronald Reagan knew the Soviet Union was evil and was determined to sink it. Obama is a committed left-wing statist. The results will be quite different if dramatic differences in belief are present. But experience, character, executive leadership and that first-class temperament (largeness of spirit, calm under fire) that Obama turned out not to possess are equally (if not more) important. It’s not a formula for high ratings in political show business, but it might be what the country has missed and could dearly use.