Do Good Men Have What It Takes to Be President?

American vice president Joe Biden appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, September 10
American vice president Joe Biden appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, September 10 (CBS/John Paul Filo)

A great politician isn’t necessarily a presidential one. This week, Americans saw one of their greatest politicians frankly sharing his doubts about running for the highest office and another drop out of the race.

In an emotional interview with The Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden reminisced about speaking to military families shortly after losing his son, Beau, to brain cancer in May when a soldier stood up and announced himself as having served with the younger Biden in Iraq.

“I lost it,” Biden said. “You can’t do that.”

“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president,” he continued, “unless they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion.’ I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”

It’s no wonder Biden is one of America’s most beloved politicians. It seems no one can speak frankly like him — if sometimes to the embarrassment of himself and others — and survive in national politics.

The Democrat spoke about that as well, wondering, “why in God’s name would you want the job if you couldn’t say what you believed?”

But a leader shouldn’t always say what’s on his mind. It’s not just that the media and voters can be unforgiving when a politician slips — although Biden seems uniquely immune to scandal. If that politician is the president or a cabinet member, a gaffe can have real-world repercussions.

John Dickerson writes at Slate that when politicians show authenticity — anger, fear, uncertainty, weakness — it often turns into a liability. The vice president, by contrast, offers the power of his personal example: “people can actually use what they see in another person to sustain them in their own lives.”

As much as his candor, his charity and his empathy make Biden an inspiring figure and sadly a rarity in politics, his aren’t necessarily the qualities of a president, however.

Biden knows that. It’s why he’s not running for president a third time.

On the Republican side, former Texas governor Rick Perry also found out that charity and empathy are not all it takes.

Matt Mackowiak relays a powerful anecdote from the last time Perry sought his party’s presidential nomination four years ago at Townhall. During one of the primary debates, candidates were seated around a table and furiously making notes while others were talking to remind themselves of a point they wanted to make.

One candidate, former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, noticed that Perry wasn’t writing very much. Through the course of the debate, Santorum told the story of the tremendous health challenges that his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare disease, had faced through her life. It was a touching story. As the debate ended, the candidates stood up and shook hands. Santorum walked over to Perry and glanced down at his paper and saw just three words: Pray for Bella.

I don’t know how you can read that and not choke up.

When he announced he was suspending his presidential campaign on Friday, Perry said he shared the news with no regrets. As “I approach the next chapter in life,” he said, “I do so with the love of my life by my side, Anita Perry.”

We have our house in the country, we have two beautiful children and two adorable grandchildren, four dogs and the best sunset from our front porch that you could ever imagine. Life is good. And I am a blessed man.

Biden and Perry have both been enormously successful in politics. Although the former joked with Colbert about the respect the vice presidency deserves (very little, he suggested), Biden has been one of Barack Obama’s most important advisors and played a key role in the administration’s relations with a Republican Congress. Before he became vice president, Biden had a long and distinguished career as a senator. Perry has been Texas’ longest-serving governor and seen to it that his state is one of the economically most vibrant in America. Those are proud records and both men deserve (or deserved, in Perry’s case) to be taken seriously as presidential contenders.

But some of the very qualities that make them such good men should also give voters pause about their presidential ambitions.

The American presidency is probably the toughest job on Earth. The power and responsibility that come with it are too much to ask from most people. Like a surgeon who cannot let his personal affection for a patient get in the way of the job at hand, the president of the United States must be able to make life-and-death decisions without personal feelings interfering, or at least not too much.

Scientists say that people cannot do empathy and problem-solving equally well at the same time. A good president has the capacity for both. But when push comes to shove, Americans will often demand a man or a woman who’s better at the latter than the former, as they should.

It’s why former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for all her perceived lack of authenticity, is still by far the favorite to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination next year and why real-estate mogul Donald Trump, despite his high poll ratings, is extremely unlikely to win the Republican nomination.

Americans like their politicians affable and folksy. But few would mistake those qualities for competence.

Despite Gaffes, Perry Could Prove Formidable Contender

Former Texas governor Rick Perry speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, March 19
Former Texas governor Rick Perry speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, March 19 (StumpSource/J. Alex Cooney)

Former Texas governor Rick Perry announced on Thursday he would run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination again. Although he is best remembered for a number of gaffes committed the last time around, Perry could still prove a formidable contender.

His announcement comes a little over a week before former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the presumptive nominee, is expected to make his own candidacy official in Miami.

Whereas Bush is seen as a pragmatist and closer to the political center — despite boasting a solidly conservative record on business policy and taxes — Perry is a populist who appeals mainly to social conservatives. His reactionary views on culture-war issue like abortion and gay marriage should resonate with evangelical and Southern voters.

What makes Perry more credible than other social conservatives in the race, such as his state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, is that he has actually governed — successfully.

The New York Times reports that during Perry’s fifteen years as governor, “Texas created more than three out of each ten new American jobs and employment rose more than 2.2 million, a jump of nearly 25 percent. Nationally, payrolls increased just 6 percent over the same period.”

Even the left-leaning Vox admits that Texas is “a place where conservative policy ideas really have led to the kind of rapid economic growth Republicans like to brag about.”

Light regulations makes it easy and cheap to build homes in Texas while the absence of strong labor laws gives it a flexible jobs market (and a high rate of low-paid jobs). The state provides good infrastructure and keeps taxes low. While Perry was in office, the tax burden dropped from 14 to 12 percent of gross domestic product.

It is doubtful Americans across the country want to imitate Texas. But at least Perry realizes that Republicans need to give voters an alternative vision to President Barack Obama’s rather than stop at criticizing his administration.

“Let’s be clear about something,” he told conservatives earlier this year.

The American voters’ rejection of the Democrat policies does not mean they embraced Republicans. It is not good enough to state what we are just against.

Perry has the right attitude but isn’t always the best spokesman for conservatism. When he ran for president four years ago, he infamously failed to remember one of three departments of government he wanted to cut and alleged that NATO ally Turkey was ruled by “Islamic terrorists”.

Something else made him stand out at the time: his honest commentary about the future of Social Security, America’s public pension program.

During one of the primary debates, Perry said, “Young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age — that is just a lie.”

Without reform, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted at some point between 2036 and 2040. By that time, the annual payroll taxes that finance pensions will cover only 75 percent of benefits.

Americans under the age of 36 know that Perry was telling the truth. 76 percent of them told pollsters in 2012 they did not expect to ever draw a Social Security check.

Yet Perry was derided by Democrats and Republicans alike for suggesting that Social Security is in need of an overhaul. Most other candidates simply had nothing meaningful to say about what is America’s largest entitlement program. If Perry makes an issue out of Social Security reform again, he would add something valuable to the debate.

Bush, Perry Learning from Mitt Romney’s Mistakes

President Barack Obama speaks with Texas governor Rick Perry aboard a helicopter traveling to Dallas, July 9, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks with Texas governor Rick Perry aboard a helicopter traveling to Dallas, July 9, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

Jeb Bush and Rick Perry, two former Republican governors who are considering presidential runs in 2016, presented themselves this week as eager to tackle issues such as stagnant middle-class wages and income inequality that have been mostly dominated by the left. Read more

Republican Perry: Turkey Ruled by “Islamic Terrorists”

Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican Party presidential candidate, said on Monday night that Turkey is ruled “by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists” and he questioned whether it should remain a member of NATO.

Perry was participating in a Fox News debate of Republican Party presidential hopefuls in South Carolina. The state is due to vote in the party’s primary election this Saturday to nominate an opposition candidate to run against President Barack Obama in November.

The Texan observed that Turkey was moving “far away” from the country that he lived in during the 1970s when he was stationed in Turkey as a United States Air Force pilot. Turkey at the time was under an unstable secular government that was overthrown by the military in a 1980 coup. Nevertheless, it “was our ally,” said Perry. “Today, we don’t see that.”

The current conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conducts a more independent foreign policy and has sought to infuse Islamic values in a nation that is overwhelmingly religious but seen aggressive attempts at secularization under both civilian and army regimes for much of its republican history.

Erdoğan has severed ties with Israel in favor of a policy that is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, including Hamas, a group the United States regard as a terrorist organization. He tried to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Tehran in 2010 over Western objections but also agreed late last year to host an early warning radar system for NATO’s European missile shield despite Iranian pressure and threats.

Recently, the government in Ankara has distanced itself from Damascus after fostering trade relations with the Ba’athist regime there in previous years. President Abdullah Gül said in August of last year that he had “lost confidence” in his Syrian counterpart and Turkey has refused to close its border with Syria for refugees seeking to escape the brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

American-Turkish relations have been complicated by Turkey’s assertiveness. Where it used to be staunchly pro-American and considered itself Western, Erdoğan and his Islamist party have realigned their country to become a power in region. The move has not been without suspicion — from the United States as well as opposition parties inside Turkey that fear an Islamization of their society.

If Turkey is to be a regional player, it cannot be perceived as an American puppet regime. Nor can it maintain cordial relations with the Jewish state if it is to present itself as an alternative to either theocracy or secular dictatorship.

Especially in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” which forced authoritarian, secular and often pro-Western governments out of power, Turkey’s blend of democracy and Islamism may be a model for revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria where the majority of people are conservative and Muslim and antisemitism is rife. It is why Ankara has distanced itself from the depots it was so willing to do business with just a few years ago in the name of “zero problems with neighbors” and embraced the new order in the Middle East — one it hopes to lead.

This could be an opportunity for the United States to exert influence through Turkey on countries that are generally anti-American except for their (military) establishments that have for decades conducted a foreign policy that lacked popular support.

Perry didn’t recognize such an opportunity. He said he wanted to “send a powerful message to countries like Iran and Syria and Turkey that the United States is serious.”

Grouping Turkey, a NATO ally for sixty years, with overtly anti-American regimes like Iran and Syria would constitute a major shift in American strategy and possibly undermine its foreign policy across the Middle East if it is seen as mistaking conservative Islam for extremism.

A foreign-policy advisor to Rick Perry’s campaign elaborated on the governor’s comments to an ABC News journalist after the debate, explaining that it was the Turkish government’s association with Hamas that prompted his use of the word “terrorists.” She added that as president, Perry “would welcome the opportunity to work with Turkey on regional issues like Syria or Iraq.”

Gingrich, Perry Question Romney’s Business Past

It’s an unusual sight for a party that professes to champion free enterprise. Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are independently picking apart Mitt Romney’s past at the head of a private equity firm in the hope of capturing the blue-collar vote in South Carolina’s primary election next week.

The first in the South primary may be the last chance Gingrich and Perry have of stopping the former Massachusetts governor from claiming the Republican presidential nomination for November’s election.

Romney, who is perceived as a moderate, was not expected to do well in conservative South Carolina before he won the caucuses in just as conservative Iowa last week. He also emerged the victor from New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, an unlikely feat given the disparities in voter affiliation between the two states.

His main conservative rivals, Gingrich, Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, all plan a last stand in South Carolina before the primary race moves to much larger and more centrist Florida late in January. In recent months, they have criticized him for changing positions on abortion and for implementing a health insurance scheme in Massaschusetts that is eerily similar to President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. All to little avail. A vast majority of Republican primary voters still expects him to be the nominee.

That is not to say they like him. In South Carolina, Florida and nationwide, Romney’s popularity rarely exceeds 30 percent. Deemed a flipflopper and accused of lacking core principles, the presumptive nominee is clearly vulnerable but at least until now, his rivals haven’t managed to find the right line of attack.

Gingrich and Perry hope that they’ve finally found his weakness. The former House speaker and incumbent Texas governor have both staked their candidacies on a strong showing in South Carolina and are vehemently criticizing Romney there for making millions as a venture capitalist — or “vulture capitalist,” as Perry puts it — while bankrupting companies and laying people off.

Romney contends that in a free-market economy, people sometimes lose their jobs. Besides, he says, his company helped create or sustain tens of thousands more jobs than it destroyed. He promises to apply the same philosophy to boosting employment nationwide as president.

If there’s any indication that the attacks could hurt him, it is the rapidness with which the conservative press has spun into action to question Gingrich’s and Perry’s tactics. Right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News presenters are openly critical of the two presidential contenders, accusing them of drawing the same distinction between “good” and “bad” capitalism that the left is trying to make.

The Wall Street Journal, an influential pro-business newspaper, similarly lambasted the “crude and damaging caricatures of modern business and capitalism” that Gingrich and Perry make, editorializing that “desperate” Republican candidates “sound like Michael Moore,” the left-wing filmmaker.

The Romney campaign has responded in kind. “We expect attacks on free enterprise from President Obama and his allies on the left,” it said in a statement, “not from so-called fiscal conservatives.”

Is it a winning strategy? The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent in South Carolina, well above the national average. It’s also one of the poorest states in the union in terms of median household income. South Carolinians may be conservative but it remains to be seen if they’re firmly capitalist. The primary there is January 21.

Republican Candidates Critical of Defense Cuts

Republican presidential hopefuls lined up against deep defense cuts during a foreign policy debate that was broadcast by CNN on Tuesday.

Texas governor Rick Perry blamed President Barack Obama for failing to lead the national deficit reduction effort and called it “reprehensible” that he would threaten to veto repeal of a sequester that should cut more than half a trillion dollars in projected defense spending over the next decade.

The failure of a congressional supercommittee tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction could trigger hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to military spending in 2013 although the next legislature could cancel this so-called sequestration.

Defense secretary Leon Panetta has forecast “doomsday” if the sequester cuts were enacted and predicted that the American military would be reduced to little more than a “paper tiger” that “invites aggression.”

An army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers to be able to accomplish the mission.

“If Leon Panetta is an honorable man,” Perry concluded Tuesday night, “he should resign in protest.”

Ahead of the debate, Jon Huntsman, the former American ambassador to China, in an op-ed for CNN lamented that those of this opponents who would let “draconian across the board cuts” in defense spending guide policy were missing the point.

First, they let resources drive strategy rather than using strategy to drive force structure and capabilities. Second, they fail to fundamentally alter our defense posture — so any short-term savings will be quickly erased.

The challenge, according to Huntsman, is to design the armed forces so that they can respond “swiftly and firmly” to terrorist threats wherever they appear.

He would draw down American troop levels in Afghanistan to between 10- and 15,000 from 100,000 today. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is perceived as the frontrunner in the primary contest, criticized Huntsman, pointing out that none of the military commanders favored such a steep withdrawal. “This is not time for America to cut and run,” he said.

Since September 11, 2001, military spending has increased by almost 7 percent a year, up from $291 billion ten years ago to almost $700 billion today. For 2012, the Pentagon has requested an appropriation of $671 billion including $118 billion to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in order for the military to execute its base budget plans over the next decade, it needs a total of $597 billion or 11 percent more than if funding was held at the 2011 level. The sequester would prevent this rise from occurring.

Rick Perry, Down Not Out

Governor Rick Perry hasn’t had a couple of very good weeks. His popularity has plummeted after a series of disappointing debate performances which culminated last week in the now infamous “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember it was the Department of Energy he would like to eliminate.

The governor was instantly written off as a serious contender. No presidential candidate, the commentariat declared, could survive a gaffe so embarrassing. Rick Perry’s campaign, they said, is over.

Yet less than week after the incident, Perry unveiled a comprehensive plan to “uproot and overhaul” Washington and defended it credibly and concisely on a number of television shows.

If Perry had his way, Congress would be made a part-time legislature, lawmakers’ pay would be cut, federal spending capped at 18 percent of gross domestic product and all regulations enacted during the Obama Administration audited with many of them, one supposes, repealed — foremost among them, Obamacare.

It was hardly the first time that Perry avenged himself with a bold and conservative policy proposal. His optional 20 percent flat tax was also presented to primary voters after he had tried to attack Mitt Romney’s flipflopping in debate and failed — a feat in itself for Romney’s lack of consistency will be the stuff of legends one day.

It’s precisely because conservatives so mistrust Romney that Perry still stands a chance of winning the nomination.

Social Security privatization, a flat tax, government reform — it’s like Perry is ticking off a box on the Tea Party wish list every other week to actually make Washington as “inconsequential” in people’s lives as possible. Does anyone expect Romney to ever do the same?

Right now, Perry is in single digits in most nationwide polls but if Herman Cain continues to pretend that presidents don’t need to know anything other than “9-9-9” to get elected and once Newt Gingrich inevitably implodes, there will be an opportunity for the Texan to rally the conservative base and position himself as the true anti-Romney. He has the experience of fostering economic success in his state and boasts an impressive campaign war chest that will be utilized to demolish whichever candidate won’t get out of the way after Iowa and South Carolina have both voted in January. If Romney doesn’t manage to lock up the nomination in Nevada and Florida the next month, he probably never will and there’s a clear path for Perry to the Republican candidacy.