The White House Needs Politicians

Imagine the following hypothetical conversation, set in the Oval Office some time in 2002:

CIA Director: “Mr. President, we have been able to capture some people we believe are terrorists and may have knowledge of future plots against our country. We would like to torture them to extract this information.”
White House Counsel: “Mr. President, we’ve reviewed this request, and we believe we can concoct sufficient legal justification for these actions.”
Secretary of Defense: “Mr. President, I endorse this request, which will help save the lives of our soldiers.”

How would a good president deal with this information?

Now, I should be clear about what I mean by “good president.” It’s easy to categorize presidents as good or bad based on whether they pushed policies that we liked or hated. But that’s far too simple, and, frankly, unhelpful. I’m speaking here, rather, of the kind of qualities that Richard Neustadt used to write about and Jonathan Bernstein has been touching on more recently. The idea is that there are many inherent weaknesses to the American presidency — lack of control of any one area of government, a dependence on the expertise of others in an increasingly sophisticated world, etc. — but a good politician can acquire information and bargaining chips that compensate for those weaknesses. Good presidents don’t simply defer to the experts; they also consider political ramifications. And presidents have a unique perspective: they’re the only ones with all the information about policy impacts and political fallout, and also the only ones who will be held responsible for errors.

A good president is thus one who cares deeply about his political fortunes and those of his party. This keeps him from making tragic mistakes. He processes all of the expert advice but views it through the lens of politics. Will this hurt him and his party in the next election? Will this hurt his vice president should that person seek the presidency? How will he look in the history books?

There’s a terrible narrative out there suggesting that the best president would be one who didn’t consider politics when making decisions, who simply decided what would be best for the country and went ahead and did it. In fact, leaders who don’t consider politics when making decisions tend to be the most dangerous ones. Having a democratically-elected politician in the White House is, in fact, a source of great strength.

From what we know about President George W. Bush, he was terribly uninterested in much of what presidents usually care about, such as securing a legacy, acquiring information, thinking about political fallout, making sure decisions were carried out, etc. Not unrelatedly, he had a vice president with no future political ambitions of his own. All this left him badly insulated from public opinion (which was not terribly kind to him after a few years in office). Bush also had a tendency, more so than other modern presidents, to defer to those with greater expertise. To be sure, he had some smart and experienced people around him, but deferring to the smart and experienced is not necessarily the same thing as presidential leadership.

Nonetheless, this appears to be how Bush would have responded to the hypothetical conversation above. He basically said, “You guys are the experts. Do what you’ve got to do.”

What was needed, however, was something more along the lines of, “Are you kidding? I’ll be known forever as the torture president. And my party will go out of its way to distance itself from me. Or, worse, they’ll become the torture party and evaluate future candidates by how much they like torture. Sorry. I appreciate your expertise, but find me another way to keep us safe.”

After all, the panic that followed 9/11 would not last forever, and opinion-makers and voters wouldn’t always excuse anything in the name of keeping America safe. Eventually, limits would return. A good politician would have known that.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.