October 29, 2004 · Lessig
It is no surprise to readers of this blog that I would endorse John Kerry for President. I’ve been harshly (sometimes unfairly) critical of the President (though the Secret Service has not questioned me about my criticism), while I’ve withheld criticism of John Kerry, save for questions about his campaign, and anxiety about his views on IP (and subsequent events have calmed both fears).
But every blog owes it to this space to state its case one way or the other, however briefly, so that the reality of November 3 doesn’t distort the views of where we are today.
Update: Dave’s taken the idea of endorsement and made it bloggable. Check out the options here.
There is an aspect of George Bush that has made it hard to come to this view. I’ve had no doubt about his policies — except for his views on trade (the steel tariffs embarrassment notwithstanding), I’m against them. But his character (as we see it) has a feature that is rare in politicians, and that as a liberal, I long for. As Bush likes to say, even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands. He’s flip-flopped of course (see facts 88-92 on The Nation’s 100 Facts about Bush), but on core positions, he has remained firm.
This is a feature in a politician, not a bug. It was the great disappointment of Clinton that heat would melt any resolve. Loyalty was a weakness. Commitment to an ideal that was unpopular was simply a prelude to a changing commitment.
Bush is different in this respect. It is a certain stubbornness, no doubt, but when stubbornness reflects principles, it is a rare virtue for a politician. It is how we like to remember Reagan. It’s what gave Lincoln the strength to risk everything for the Union.
But ultimately the question is what this stubbornness is a commitment to. One can respect a man committed to values one disagrees with, but that respect depends upon believing that it is really values that constitute the disagreement.
And here I found the Suskind’s book about Paul O’Neill the most instructive. The Price of Loyalty tells a story about a terrifying White House. The terror is the role of politics in this White House. No doubt, every White House has a political director. But at its core, policy should be the driver. Politics might wrap the policy; politics might guide its execution. But if a Presidency is to be more than a machine to assure reelection, then commitment must be to something more than the machine to assure reelection.
This White House has no policy core, at least according to O’Neill, and confirmed in many obvious ways. As he describes through Suskind, there is just a political shell, with no core policy driving the politics. Policy debates are scripted; arguments are removed from the script. The least curious President gets surrounded by yes men, who are themselves watching for signals not from the President, but from the men in charge of getting the President elected.
This is a criticism we could generalize across branches. The branch I know the most about (though admittedly, not much) is the judiciary. Everyone who lives and studies the law recognizes that judges too have a political shell. They are sensitive to, and react with, the changing mood of a time. But we respect judges not for their political skill, but for the principles that define their legal core. The political shell must answer to those principles. If it does, the judge merits respect, even from those who disagree with the principles at his or her core.
I spend my life as a lawyer in the dreamworld that imagines that principles guide judicial decisions. My students try to wake me from that world; I refuse to wake. And as a citizen, I want to live in the world where the White House is guided by a policy making core, not by a political shell. There is an ideal in the law called getting it right, politics notwithstanding. There should be such an ideal in the White House too.
My values are closer to Kerry’s than Bush. So I start biased in his favor. But in those moments when I let myself imagine that Kerry might actually pull this off, the picture that is most dramatically different in my mind is the idea that getting it right might return to the White House. Getting it right: following the facts, asking questions, testing theories, doing what, in light of these, and the values that frame these questions, is right.
Kerry reads. He asks questions. He gets angry at incomplete answers. He does policy. On this alone, he will be a better President than President Bush. And if he can thin the political shell to its properly secondary place, and not fear standing for some ideals that most think wrong, then he’ll be a great President — greater than Clinton, or Reagan, or just about anyone else.
There’s of course much more one could say. There are the parts that make me rage with anger (torture) and well with tears (torture). But the ideal of a policymaking White House is at least a reason for Kerry over Bush. I won’t pretend that it was reason that got me to my vote. I’m sure that anger and tears will always have more power than reason. But if you want to get it right, here at least is a reason.