The “Vision Thing,” Or the Moral Grounding of All Politics

By my old friend from the Reagan years, Robert Reilly, in today’s Wall Street Journal (paywall):

The Great Communicator Ronald Reagan…spoke mostly in moral terms….He understood that Washington is not a management problem; it is a political problem. Everything the government does is necessarily political, because governments decide not only who gets what, but why. These choices define a candidate’s politics, but they must be conceived and expressed in terms of moral priorities.

Political language is inherently moral, not managerial. It must convey visions, not just plans. It must explain why some things are good and others bad.

Instincts are never enough. You need to have thought about politics in the philosophical sense to know what is going on. I have seen businessmen in Washington with superb instincts who soon became frustrated. That is because people who have no background in either moral philosophy or rhetoric—i.e., lacking the “vision thing”—are most often left speechless when they discover that they cannot rebut attacks with management techniques.

 If you cannot articulate the cause for which you are fighting in moral terms, you will lose.

 

  1. Peter Halpin

    What a great post. I think the problem with managerial thinking is that it is inherently utilitarian: how can we get the most efficiency and utility out of a given set of resources, parameters, limitations etc. The “vision thing” means that a candidate looks to find new resources, change parameters, and lessen or overcome limitations. The individual mandate is a perfect example. I think Romney is partially correct when he makes his states’ rights argument, saying that Obamacare is wrong precisely because it is a federal mandate. But this is managerial thinking. Moral thinking also attacks the very notion of the mandate, and would argue against its being utilized on a state level, despite the fact that that it may allowable under the Constitution.

  2. James Gawron

    Peter,

    I’ll make a little joke.  Morality is all about the Law of Supply and Demand.  The Supply of people willing to articulate the cause for which they are fighting in moral terms is so low that the Demand for them becomes very high indeed.

    Luckily for us, it only takes one good one to make the case.

    Regards,

    Jim

  3. Stuart Creque

     Business leaders can manage in a command and control environment, where if inspiration and moral authority fail, “do it because I said so” is a fallback position, and the other branch of government — the board of directors — is often a captive of management, or at least its passive accomplice.

    Presidents cannot order Congress to act.  They have to use moral suasion to get Congress to go along with their proposals, or to get the electorate to pressure Congress to do so.  And even civil servants in the Executive branch are largely insulated from direct command and control, the chain of command in many agencies being much more loosely enforced than in the private sector (where it isn’t always all that tight either).

  4. Franco

    I wish I could read the whole thing.

    This has been my primary concern with Romney and any number of other Republicans. Add to that the insularity from so rarely being challenged which  elites have due to their status and privilege. That is, Goerge W. and Karl Rove can dismiss virulent attacks as, “it’s just politics” while we cannonfodder have to deal with left-wing IED’s at every turn in our daily lives. 

    Somehow, these managers believe “everyone knows high taxes kill jobs” and any number of abstract concepts, but they can’t explain how and why. They assume everyone else starts out agreeing with basic principles.

    Worst of all, they completely misunderstand the true nature of their mortal enemies, the left, and they dismiss them with easy pejoratives.  

    They remind me of people who laugh at failed Islamic terrorists. They think they are invincible.

    Romney is the poster-boy for this phenomenon. (paywall)

  5. Doug Kimball

    I read only the except above, however, I think that his observation is not only true, but it also explains why Mitt Romney’s candidacy lacks resonance.  Reagan was a Democrat, yet we accepted his conversion to conservatism completely.  Romney’s moral rudder, on the other hand, seems to point him in an uncertain direction.  Pundits tell us not to worry, we’ll have a competent Master (or Masters) at the wheel, otherwise guiding us.  Yet we have these aggravating asides - inflation adjusted minimum wages, for example –  that remind us that Mitt is if not adrift, then at least off course.  Santorum is quite the opposite.  His policies and positions are all about morality and lacking in specifics. 

    I just hope we get to the convention uncommitted so we can draft someone.  Jon Kyl is my favorite. 

  6. Casey

    I seem to recall something similar being said of Thatcher.

  7. Whiskey Sam

    Great insight!  This is why technocrats struggle when moral leadership is required.  Pragmatic tinkering addresses the details without dealing with the underlying principles which often are the root of the problem.  A man with a vision can lead; a manager can only fine-tune that vision once it is established.  It seems to me we are at a point where we have lost sight of the vision of what made America great, and we need a leader to show the way back and not a manager to shepherd the decline.

  8. Bereket Kelile

    I just read the piece in full. It reminded me of your piece, Peter, from a few weeks back. I agree in full. So, based on this criteria it would seem that Gingrich is the ideal candidate. It may be unpredictable and at times distracted but he definitely gets the “vision thing” and can deliver it with eloquence and passion. I think Santorum gets it too but I don’t get the feeling that he can sell it. It sounds forced a bit when he makes the case.

    P.S.- I should have written criterium rather than criteria. And, by ideal, I mean of the three candidates (Romney, Santorum, Gingrich).

  9. katievs

    Sooo, can we think of a candidate in the Republican field who has that “vision thing” going strong?  Who can articulate at the level of principle as well as policy?  Who can intelligently relate our economic woes to cultural and moral ills?

    Anyone?  Anyone?

  10. Chris Deleon
    bereket kelile: It may be unpredictable and at times distracted but he definitely gets the “vision thing” and can deliver it with eloquence and passion. I think Santorum gets it too but I don’t get the feeling that he can sell it. It sounds forced a bit when he makes the case. · 1 minute ago

    The problem with Gingrich is exactly what you identified: he’s unpredictable, and though he’s good at the “vision thing,” is he consistent with one vision?  It’s one thing to have vision, it’s another to have the right vision, consistently and persistently enough to bring it to fruition.

  11. James Of England
    Chris Deleon

    bereket kelile: It may be unpredictable and at times distracted but he definitely gets the “vision thing” and can deliver it with eloquence and passion. I think Santorum gets it too but I don’t get the feeling that he can sell it. It sounds forced a bit when he makes the case. ·

    The problem with Gingrich is exactly what you identified: he’s unpredictable, and though he’s good at the “vision thing,” is he consistent with one vision?  It’s one thing to have vision, it’s another to have the right vision, consistently and persistently enough to bring it to fruition. ·

    Right. The problem we face is one of overspending, which is not one that fits easily with a hollywood theme tune. The big spending cutters of history, Bush Senior, Harding, Cleveland, are not people remembered as great, even by those who agree with their politics. The “great” conservatives are the big spenders, whether that’s Reagan or, to some people’s minds, Teddy Roosevelt. In the face of a sovereign debt threat, we don’t get to halve our taxes or launch bold new projects. We need cuts that hurt people, which is glum.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Peter, the last sentence in your post should be tattooed on the foreheads of George W. H. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Managerial progressivism is all about eschewing principles in the name of pragmatism.

  13. dogsbody

    Political language is inherently moral, not managerial. It must convey visions, not just plans. It must explain why some things are good and others bad…  I have seen businessmen in Washington with superb instincts who soon became frustrated. That is because people who have no background in either moral philosophy or rhetoric—i.e., lacking the “vision thing”—are most often left speechless when they discover that they cannot rebut attacks with management techniques.

    I believe this is what our own Professor Rahe meant when he said that Romney “isn’t educated” in an Uncommon Knowledge interview some weeks ago.  That is–correct me if I’m wrong, Professor Rahe–people like Romney may be clever and have superb training from the MBA world, but they aren’t conversant with the moral vision of the Founders and the great works that informed their vision.  ”Without a vision, the people perish”–in our case, by losing the next election to the totalitarian vision of the Left.

  14. Whiskey Sam

    I’ve been thinking on this some more, and this is also a problem in the message we send to people when our argument against the welfare state is a utilitarian one in that it is inefficient or unsustainable.  While these are true statements, they also ignore the larger moral component of creating a culture of dependency on the government instead of self-reliance and liberty.  By giving the technical arguments priority, we de-emphasize the moral component which makes it easier in flush times to ignore the long-term financial ramifications and expand entitlements or other government programs.  It is much more difficult to continue government growth if that spending is explained as not just unsustainable, but unconstitutional or immoral.

  15. Steve MacDonald

    Brilliant and spot on. While silent Cal is one of my all time favorites, the times call for a Churchill/Thatcher/Reagan type of leader. As Katie points out however, that alternative is currently not an option available to us.

    Whiskey Sam, I would add something about the deepening cycle of corruption that a dependency culture promotes and demands.

  16. Polyphemus
    Whiskey Sam: …By giving the technical arguments priority, we de-emphasize the moral component which makes it easier in flush times to ignore the long-term financial ramifications and expand entitlements or other government programs… · 17 hours ago

    This is a crucial point. I wonder if the reason we do that is that we have been conditioned to buy into the reflexive cultural code that says the worst thing to do is to be “judgemental” or “intolerant”. The Left has been very good at promulgating that notion lest we end up imposing our values on someone else. It’s a kind of cowardice masquerading as humility. We shouldn’t give in so easily to that.

    It doesn’t mean, of course, that we are the moral arbiters of all others simply because of who we are. That would be actual hubris. We must be prepared for and welcome dissent, being ready to argue in support of our moral certitude. But having moral certitude is no offense. Rather, abdicating all moral judgements in the interests of being tolerant is the offense.

    The irony is that while we’ve acquiesced, the Left has no problem making moral arguments.

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