Although Steve Clemons knows I am an Obama supporter I did not coordinate or clear this post with the Obama campaign. For better or worse these views are mine and mine alone.
— Michael Schiffer
I don’t know whether Senator Obama reads The Washington Note or not, but in his speech in Iowa City the other day there was a line not in the prepared text that suggests that Senator Obama has an answer to some of the questions Steve Clemons has been raising about feeling like he is being asked by Obama to simply trust his “identity”, his “intuition” or his “his gut” as a reason to support him.
Here is what Senator Obama said:
“So if you want to know what is in the gut of a presidential candidate take a look at their record. . .take a look at what they have accomplished before they were president. . .at the choices they made before they were president. . .”
Now, Steve and I can argue endlessly, I imagine, about how to parse the record. And we can likewise be filled with endless anguish about how to evaluate and weight the different components and measures of experience, judgment, intelligence, and so forth in determining what candidate to support.
But putting that aside — at least for right now; in a separate post I also intend to offer my thoughts and perspectives on some of the “measures of experience” that Steve has raised about Obama, too — it strikes me that if you actually listen to what Obama is saying he is not at all, in fact, asking the sort of question about “intuition” that Steve seems to think he is. In fact, while I don’t know if I’d go so far as to suggest that the “intuition” argument is intentionally misleading — I know that Steve, at least, takes this stuff very, very seriously and that the questions he has been raising are a sincere effort to grapple with the many legitimate issues that go into deciding what candidate to support. It does seem fair to say that based on Obama’s own words the claim that Obama and his campaign are making a “cultish” pitch on the alter of “intuition” is something of a red herring.
Rather, it strikes me that what Senator Obama is asking people to do is simply to look at what is in fact his long and open public record, including going on twelve years now in elected office in the Illinois legislature and in the US Senate, but also his time as a community organizer as well as other aspects of his life, all well-chewed over and in the public record. . .and then to draw their own conclusions about whether or not he has displayed the judgment and has the sort of temperament that we look for and hope for in a president. This isn’t a question of intuition, but of a policy record. Trust, in other words, but verify.
His “Our Moment Is Now” closing argument speech, in fact, contains a section in which he offers up a recounting of his biography and the range of experiences he would bring to the job of president, his accomplishments, the choices he has made, and the judgments, too, that let us know what sort of president he is likely to be.
So his approach — or at least so it seems to me — is one that places a high value on experience, but that construes experience more broadly than simply checking the boxes of a traditional inside-the-beltway career climb, and, more importantly, also places experience in context. Its an approach, for example, that does not take experience as an empty category, something asserted, but asks people to reflect on what experience actually is and what it actually means.
How does banging a gavel in a Senate hearing room or working as a community organizer or being a governor or being a First Lady or being in a state legislature transfer into the skills we seek in a president? Clearly in different ways and to different degrees all do, but as the history of numerous successful and not-so-successful presidencies can also attest, neither is there a straight line from any of these backgrounds and experiences to success in the Oval Office.
After all, we don’t look to leaders to have experience as the thing in and of itself — if we did, the Draft Dick Cheney campaign should be picking up steam right about now, no? But because we use experience as a proxy for something more valuable and much more needed in our elected officials: wisdom and judgment. Your experiences, whatever they may be, inform your identity, after all, and if you are experienced, we hope, you emerge with an identity better able to make key judgments, and better able to handle whatever challenges life might throw at you in the future.
And this — or again, at least so it seems to me — is a slightly more sophisticated and nuanced question then those who attempt to reduce this simply to that of a question of “identity” or “intuition”.
In fact, it is an approach that really asks not to rely on intuition at all, but rather to evaluate the judgment displayed by the different candidates not based on made-up categories about the past or empty promises about the future, but based on the realities of the totality of their life experiences and, for those who have lived part of their lives in the public arena, on their past public actions, statements, choices, and votes.
Its an approach that would ask us to evaluate what to make of a candidate who may have checked all the boxes of certain traditional political experiences yet, in their record of public life — in their stands on the important issues of the day — has exercised, at least at times, poor judgment. Its an approach that would ask us what we make of a candidate who has lots of experience, but don’t seem to have learned much from it. Its an approach that would ask us what we make of a candidate who may have, along with some traditional experience, some less traditional or even non-traditional experience, too, but who seems to “get it”, and who has a proven track records of actually managing to think big, to get things done, and to get things right more often than wrong.
After all, if experience does not translate into good judgment, what good is it? And if good judgment is derived from non-traditional experiences, why malign them?
So looking at the judgment that the different candidates have displayed — where they are, where they have been, what they have said, the choices they have made, and what they have accomplished — on issues like Iraq, Iran, Cuba, nuclear non-proliferation, congressional ethics, campaign finance reform, health care (and any number of other issues, too) are thus the very currency of being able to evaluate if a candidate has the sort of judgment we want to see in a president.
And while “judgment” may be a difficult category to get one’s hands around — and I prefer to think about this in terms of “judgment”, rather than the more, um, judgmental term “intuition — it is not entirely an abstract quality, either. And possessing good judgment is in fact a very desirable political virtue in our leaders, a point General McPeak made in discussing what the Joint Chiefs and our military looks and hopes for in a president when he introduced Obama to the crowd in Iowa City. After all, as Madison reminds us in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society. . .”]
So while it probably ought not be the only factor voters take into account, what’s wrong, or “cultish” about looking for the “wisdom to discern” as a trait in our next president? And what better way to tell who has the wisdom to discern then looking at the track record of their judgment and choices, at how discerning they have in fact been — or not — when it counts?
So if you don’t like where Obama is on the issues, or, in looking over his life and public record think that he has exhibited poor judgment and made poor choices, that’s fine. He is obviously not your candidate. Likewise, I suppose, if you don’t value the “wisdom to discern” as something to look for — one factor among many — in a president. But that is also a very different proposition then arguing that you are being asked to support Obama Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or any candidate — simply on the basis of “innate instinct“.
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)