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Last summer, I posted on BigGovernment.com a series of pieces on executive temperament. I began with Barack Obama who had demonstrated by fecklessness on a grand scale that he lacked the requisite instincts. Then, I went on to examine a series of Republican governors – Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels – who had demonstrated that they really understood what it means to say, “The buck stops here.” Finally, I posted a piece arguing that executive temperament is not enough – that principles matter. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a man of executive temperament, and he exhibited all of the right instincts – in pursuit of ends inconsistent with everything that is good about this country. My aim in this exercise, as I explained in a Ricochet post back in February was to lay the foundations for a later judgment of Republican presidential contenders, and it was my suggestion that we concentrate our attention on women and men with executive experience. Very rarely, I suggested, do United States Senators and the like make good Presidents. Their on-the-job experience teaches them the art of posturing and dodging anything that might displease their constituents, not the art of prudently making tough decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences.
The current President, as I argued in detail in the piece linked above, perfectly exemplifies what it means to lack executive temperament. He is a man who is most happy when he can vote present. He outsourced the framing of major legislation to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the like, and we got bills thousands of pages in length that no one voting on them understood. With regard to Iran, Afghanistan, and Libyan, he dithered and dithered and resorted to half-measures, and in each case we find ourselves mired in a mess. And he is still whining that the state of today’s economy is the responsibility of George W. Bush. Can you imagine Jindal, Christie, Daniels, or Pawlenty leaving matters of this sort to Congress and always looking for an easy out? Can you imagine Haley Barbour, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley, or John Kasich doing the like? I can’t. Their instinct is to take charge, and they relish the opportunity.
Of course, there have been exceptions to the rule I spelled out above regarding executive experience. The closest Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon got to executive responsibility before becoming President was being Vice-President. Like FDR, both can be criticized on grounds of principle, but neither was ineffective as President. Both were, in fact, remarkably resolute.
Abraham Lincoln is an even more extreme case. He served one term in the House of Representatives. Then, a decade later, he ran for the Senate in Illinois and was not elected. No President has ever faced a greater ordeal than the one he faced. None was more willing to take responsibility and do what needed doing. He is the exception that demonstrates that no maxim of prudence can ever be hard and fast.
I fortify myself with the examples Johnson, Nixon, and, above all else, Lincoln in mind when I suggest that Republicans in search of standard-bearer have on their hands, if they are willing to acknowledge it, a third figure genuinely worthy of serious consideration: Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Budget Committee in the United States House of Representatives.
Paul Ryan is a young man – forty-one years in age. He attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and did a B. A. in economics and political science. After working in various congressional offices and writing speeches for Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp, he was elected to Congress from Wisconsin in 1998. He has never held executive office, served as a general, or led a corporation – which ought to give one pause. But he has done something else strongly suggesting (but not proving) executive capacity, and in this particular he reminds me of Lincoln.
Lincoln was propelled from obscurity to fame by the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In running for the Senate in Illinois in 1858 – in a situation in which victory would accrue to the candidate whose party won the state house and senate – Lincoln conducted himself in the manner of an executive, and his party won a majority of the votes cast in the pertinent races but failed to gain a majority of seats in the two houses because of gerrymandering. In his debates with a renowned sitting Senator likely to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1860, Lincoln took firm, principled stands, and he articulated with great eloquence the case for his views. In the process, he forced Douglas to clarify his own views on the question of slavery in the territories in such a fashion as to make him unacceptable to the hardliners increasingly dominant in the South. The debates were printed in the press and reissued in pamphlet form thereafter. By bearding the little giant, Lincoln made of himself a national figure.
Ryan has done something similar. From his perch as Chairman of the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives, he has laid out a budget that serves as a challenge to the administrative state and that promises to move us back in the direction of fiscal sobriety. He has done this; he has repeatedly confronted the President in debates less formal and less dramatic than the Lincoln-Douglas debates but no less decisive in shaping public opinion, and he has won. For more than a year, he has been our standard-bearer, and it is his firmness and resolve in articulating what it in practice means to sustain a limited government that has thus far carried the day. Moreover, in shaping his proposed budget, he has managed in a statesmanlike fashion to get his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives on board. He has not dodged responsibility; he has seized it. He is the man of the hour.
Let me add that Ryan, who is a Catholic, is firmly anti-abortion. Moreover, he has articulated in clear terms why social conservatives should be libertarian in their economics and why libertarians should be socially conservative – for he understands the connection between the welfare state, which rewards and thrives on dependency, and the breakdown of the traditional family, and he recognizes the manner in which each fosters the other. Ryan has also shown that he understands the dangers that might well arise should we hollow out our military forces by imprudently cutting the defense budget. Prior to Governor Mitch Daniels’ announcement that he was going to sign the bill passed by the Indiana legislature defunding Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and restricting the provision of abortion services, I was inclined to make a full-throated case for Ryan. If Daniels does not run or if he fails to articulate in an impressive fashion his strategic vision with regard to American foreign policy, that is, I suspect, where I will come down. I would prefer, however, to have before me at least two excellent choices.
Paul Ryan is reluctant to enter the race. He is right to be reluctant. Congressmen rarely stand a chance; most legislators are temperamentally unsuited to executive responsibility; and Ryan has a young family. Political campaigns on the scale required can wreak havoc on family life. I nonetheless think it incumbent on Ryan to enter the race. He owes it to the country. The arguments that he is inclined to make need to be made in an eloquent and forthright fashion, and that he will do. Dark, handsome, well-informed, and seasoned in the struggles that beset Washington, DC, he would bring keen intelligence, political prudence, and the vigor of youth to a race in need of all three. We already know that, in a debate with President Obama, Ryan will win.
All of this having been said, there is one matter that has thus far been neglected and that needs attention. I am not an admirer of Ron Paul. I believe that his stance with regard to American foreign policy is utopian and dangerous. If left to its own devices, the larger world will tend towards anarchy. Throughout human history, in the absence of hegemony, piracy is the norm. Spontaneous disorder is the dominant propensity, not spontaneous order.
There is, however, one matter that Congressman Paul has focused on that others have ignored in which he is right or more nearly right than anyone else. I have in mind the Federal Reserve Board. This body was instituted in 1913 by Woodrow Wilson. It was the first attempt on the part of the federal government to introduce the principle of “rational administration” into government. Its purpose was to prevent panics and recessions, and it has tended to make them worse. By keeping interest rates artificially low in the 1920s, it sparked the boom that preceded the crash of 1929. By keeping interest rates artificially high in the aftermath, it turned a severe recession into a depression that lasted until 1941. Under Alan Greenspan in the 1990s and under Greenspan and Ben Bernanke in the early years of the current century, it kept interest rates artificially low, and it thereby laid the foundation for the crash of 2008 and the current recession. Right now, in a desperate attempt to bring unemployment down, it is keeping interest rates artificially low in such a manner as to cause inflation. If you have any doubts as to what is happening, ask anyone who shops for food. Those on tight budgets will tell you that the situation grows increasingly grim.
We need a dependable currency that maintains its value, and I have come to doubt whether it will ever be possible for us to have one if we do not go back on the gold standard. Economic wizards can stand up to anything but temptation. Offer them the prospect of playing God and of manipulating the markets, and they will persuade themselves that they have an expertise that no individual or small group of individuals can attain. It is time that we eschewed central planning in every form. It is good that Ron Paul is in the race. His presence, his persistence in arguing his case, and the fact that we are suffering stagflation may force Governors Pawlenty and Daniels and Congressman Ryan to think carefully about a question that demands greater attention than any of them appear to have given it.
Let me end by repeating what I have argued here, here, and here: that I think that we may be able to win in November, 2012 by a landslide hitherto hardly imaginable. Barack Obama is the Democratic answer to Herbert Hoover. By foolish policies, he has taken a financial panic and turned it into a severe recession that threatens to go on and on, and step by step, the public is awakening to the fact.
The polls show three things – growing discontent with the Obama administration, especially in the battleground states; general agreement with the Republican claim that we must cut back the federal budget and thereby put our fiscal house in order; and relative ignorance with regard to the most promising of the potential Republican presidential candidates. I doubt very much whether the trends evident with regard to the comparative popularity of the policies pursued by the Democrats and proposed by the Republicans will change. I am confident that the polling data with regard to the Republican presidential candidates means nothing. If Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee poll well now, it is only because the general public has not yet learned about Governors Pawlenty and Daniels and has not yet considered the possibility that Paul Ryan might run. The debates will change everything.