One of the memes that political scientists like to mock to within an inch of its life is the “Why won’t the president lead?” lament that occasionally bubbles up among the pundit class. This is an easy meme to mock because, frequently, the reason the president isn’t doing the thing that the pundit wants is because of pesky structural constraints like the Constitution or pesky political constraints like the opposition party.
On occasion, however, political leadership matters on the margins. There are moments when a political leader can use the bully pulpit or the power of personal charm or the tools of the executive branch to try to move the policy status quo. And in those instances, absolutely, leadership matters. And as we approach the 2016 election, it is worth considering which candidates have demonstrated their leadership abilities at critical moments.
Which brings me to New Jersey governor/fifth-tier presidential candidate Chris Christie and his abject failure of leadership.
Since the Paris attacks a gaggle of governors have acted like chickens with their heads cut off and announced that their states would not accept any more Syrian refugees. Even among this group, however, Christie stood out in his stridency on the issue:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t want any Syrian refugees let into the United States — not even if they’re orphaned toddlers.
“I don’t think orphans under 5 are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point. But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?” Christie said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Monday.
In my post on Monday I said that it’s necessary to acknowledge some hard facts before thinking of how to overhaul U.S. policy toward the Islamic State. Well, here are some salient facts with respect to the question of Syrian refugees coming to the United States:
- Out of 4 million Syrian refugees, the United States has accepted less than 0.05 percent of them, or less than 2,000 of them.
- The United States has one of the most stringent security screening processes in the world for potential refugees. This occurs only after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or an NGO refers the case to the United States. The U.S. process includes biometric screening, high-level security checks and interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials.
- Legally, governors have no power to block resettled refugees. As Forbes’ Steven T. Dennis writes, “The power over immigration under the Constitution rests with the federal government.”
By the way, how well has the U.S. refugee settlement system worked since, say, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?
Refugees resettled in the U.S. since 9/11: 745,000 Refugees arrested on domestic terrorism charges since 9/11: zero https://t.co/uP0fZhfLZN
— Richard Fontaine (@RHFontaine) November 17, 2015
(Update: That tweet slightly overstates its case; as the Economist story it links to notes, two Iraqis were arrested in Kentucky on charges of aiding al-Qaida. Also, it ignores Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, who came to the U.S. in 2002 as refugees from the war in Chechnya.)
So, to sum up: These governors — and Christie in particular — are engaging in Syrian refugee security theater. And as I noted last year with respect to the full Ebola freakout, there are serious problems with political theater:
[POLITICIAN X] acted in the interest of being perceived as “doing something” highly visible even though those actions will not make anyone safer. It’s the definition of security theater. And since the first rule of security theater is that you can’t admit that it’s security theater — because it undercuts the proposed reassurance — it becomes impossible to have a proper debate about it.
So let’s be honest: The kerfuffle about Syrian refugees is all about making a ton of noise about “an abundance of caution” while Americans are freaking out — even though the current system appears to be functioning pretty well.
This is a tragedy, because it is in moments like these — when ordinary people filled with rational ignorance start to panic — that political leadership can matter. It is precisely when political hysteria seems to be on the rise that gifted politicians can use their bully pulpit to explain exactly why such fears are overstated. As with Ebola, the panic tends to dissipate once reality suggests that people’s worst fears are not being realized. Feeding these fears simply worsens the problem.
While at least 20 governors are guilty of this political cowardice, Christie’s panic stands out in particular. This is true not only because his reaction appeared to be the most extreme. It is also because — spoiler alert — he was POLITICIAN X in that quote above. Indeed, over the past year he’s whiffed on his Ebola response, his response to this past summer’s stock market gyrations and now his over-the-top response to the Syrian refugee question. In all three instances, Christie ignored expert advice and just popped off in a way that exacerbated baseless fears.
There’s a word for someone who reacts to seemingly scary situations by getting even more frightened. I believe that word is “wimp.” Which means that, based on his rhetoric, Christie might be a presidential contender also-ran, but he is a major league wimp.