Saturday, October 27, 2007

Huckabee Not Experienced Enough To Be President

Written from Redwood City, Calif.--

It is natural that political writers, searching for novelty in a long campaign, give heavy play to whoever comes along who is new, charming and colorful. But it doesn't mean that someone like this is necessarily qualified to be President, or that everything that is written is necessarily very revealing as to what kind of President the candidate would make.

We've gotten to the point in our history where we simply can't afford on-the-job training. We found out that with Jimmy Carter and, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton. Both were former Southern governors who were personable, and certainly ambitious, but really had neither the experience nor the character to be good presidents. Carter was a better former president for awhile, although he has grown cantankerous in old age. Clinton is, I believe, fundamentally flawed. Actually, his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, may be a better politician and certainly would bring more experience to the White House than he did.

All this comes to mind today, because of the flurry of attention that former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is gaining in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. The column by Gail Collins in the New York Times this week is an example. Huckabee is not quite there yet, but he may become the Estes Kefauver, the Jeffrey Hart or the John McCain of the 2008 presidential contest -- namely a nice guy, a new figure, who will do quite well electorally, but whose flaws have not been fully taken into account. Like Kefauver and Hart, at least, he has absolutely no experience in foreign affairs. He may have gone to Hawaii, but that seems the visible extent of his transoceanic record.

The experienced politicians who seem best qualified to actually perform the duties of President at this stage are Hillary Clinton and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico on the Democratic side and possibly former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York on the Republican.

It's part of the ideals of America that we often prefer a charming farmer from a small state -- an amateur -- to be President. Unfortunately, the nation now has foreign policy crises which really do not allow us to afford experimentation with the untested.

It is, however, another serious question in judging who should be President that we very often can have no clue from the campaign what they would do in office. In the last century, we have had all too many cases of someone, even while experienced, who ran on one platform, only in office to adopt another. Woodrow Wilson, in 1916, ran for reelection on the slogan, "He kept us out of the War." One month after he was inaugurated for his second term, he called for a declaration of war against Germany. Lyndon Johnson ran in 1964 as a more peaceable candidate than Barry Goldwater. That lasted just two and a half weeks after his inauguration to a new term. On Feb. 7, 1965, Johnson entered into a fatal escalation of the war in Vietnam. George W. Bush vowed in his campaign to avoid a "nation-building" foreign policy, only, after 9-11, to adopt one.

I'm not saying circumstances do not sometimes change, requiring a new policy. But there has been an element of insincerity in presidential campaigning which has been disquieting. It's as if there is a mortal flaw in the democratic system.

With Huckabee, there is absolutely no background upon which to judge what he might do in the ongoing conflict with Islamic extremists or the increasingly unsettled relations with Russia, not to mention how he would confront, or not confront, global warming.

But even with Giuliani, there are hints of bellicosity, toward Iran and others, which, at the very least require close examination before votes are cast for his election.

With Richardson, due to his experience in Congress, as energy secretary and United Nations Ambassador, and, more recently in negotiations with the North Korean regime of Kim Il Jong, and the Sudanese regime in the Darfur dispute, we have a better idea of what kind of President he might make. But, if anything, he is more likely to be a vice president, since he probably cannot win the Democratic nomination.

The best article I've seen on Hillary Clinton ran a few months ago in the New York Times magazine, which has devoted admirable space to several long articles on various candidates. In this piece, Clinton appeared to be somewhat more hawkish on one hand, and somewhat more hesitant on the other, than she has come across in her campaign appearances. She has had a certain tendency in the Senate to qualify her positions. But she is careful and I think has shown good qualities.

The chances are that we will not learn all that much more about any of these candidates before the election. Even the ultimately most adventurous presidents, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in his dealings with the Great Depression, seldom reveal much of themselves in the actual campaigning. Even Lincoln in 1860 gave it to understand he would not abolish slavery in the South, which absolutely had to be done.

In 1932, Roosevelt actually campaigned on a pledge to balance the budget, most notably in a speech in Pittsburgh. When he was scheduled to make another speech in the same city in 1936, after a first term with a distinctly unbalanced budget, an aide asked him how he might explain this in the new speech. "We'll deny we ever were in Pittsburgh in 1932," Roosevelt is reported to have answered.

So Presidential campaigning is a turkey shoot. It's why I tend to prefer the British system of parliamentary democracy. At least when the British face a crisis, they can bring in a vigorous new prime minister, often with a clear policy, on short notice, as they did with Pitt in the Napoleonic wars and Churchill in World War II.



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