U.S. Presidency a Balance of the Nice and the Nasty

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

October 22, 2000

My wife Roberta and I cannot decide whom to vote for in this presidential election. We understand the policy differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but cannot fathom how our nation turned this (and other presidential elections) into a high-class quiz show or beauty pageant. Our media have given as much attention to Bush’s grimaces, Gore’s truculence, and the candidates’ overall “presence,” especially on television, as they have to policy positions.

Roberta provided a clue to our problem, and the country’s, when she noted that she wished she could split her vote between Al and George W., selecting the best parts of each. Alas we cannot do this, and the reason why is taught in every college introductory American government course. We put our candidates through this ordeal because our Constitution was fixed in concrete before the British came up with the division of the responsibilities of a ruler into its two functional components: the glories and pomp associated with the monarchy, and the political power and craftiness associated with the prime minister.

Most parliamentary democracies are used to seeing their prime ministers come and go—our system frowns upon this. We have had only two impeachments in our history (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) and one resignation from the office (Richard Nixon). The notion of removing the president-as-king is hard for Americans to accept, even though we might detest the president-as-prime minister. One moment we curse the occupant of the office as a low-life scum, the next moment we are respectfully honoring the man who happens to hold the office.

If we look at our two candidates through this prism we may get some idea as to where the winner might run into difficulty, especially in his first year or two in office.

Of our recent presidents, Al Gore most closely resembles Nixon, the president we loved to hate—but whom we voted for because he was deemed to be sufficiently nasty to deal with tough enemies and recalcitrant allies. Nixon was the ideal president-as-prime-minister, and Gore has many of the same personal qualities: intelligence, quickness, glibness and ruthlessness. I (but not Roberta) even find Gore’s ruthless streak to be attractive. He seems to be more than willing to use force abroad and he has demonstrated an admirable capacity to redefine himself, presenting a moving target to his enemies. Just let Yasser Arafat try to deal with Al! Let Putin try to pull a fast one! He’s been soft on China, but there is no doubt that he could spin on a dime and pursue a much tougher policy toward Beijing. Yet who wants to have him over to the house for beer and pizza? We’d be subjected to a long lecture on the evils of high-fat foods, and he’d probably get our names wrong when making an example out of us on the stump.

George W., on the other hand, would make the ideal house guest—and one can imagine hours of convivial talk, reminiscing about baseball and old fraternity pranks. He is, in fact, a lot like a younger Dwight Eisenhower, a lovable president whose diction and vocabulary he seems to be emulating. This Bush shows some signs of being a “presidential” president.

The irony of this campaign is that both candidates are trying to cross over to the other side of our bifurcated presidency. Gore has tried to be more presidential (more like Ike) and Bush’s attempt to be more prime ministerial (like Nixon without reminding us of Nixon’s dark side). We applaud Bush when he manages to eke out the names of a few foreign leaders, and we are more pleased with a polo-shirted Gore trying to be a populist. He is a man with a serious “edge” problem.

What can we expect from Nixon-Gore or Eisenhower-Bush when one or the other becomes president? Gore’s risks are those of policy excesses. He doesn’t want or need to be loved, he wants to get something done. Blinded by his sense of omni-competence and unconstrained by advisors (he has only a few for each subject area and sees himself as the real expert on most things), he might zealously pursue some policies to the point where he will alienate the people he needs to work with. This is unlikely to happen in the domestic political arena because he will be hemmed in by a Republican Congress and the checks and balances of the American political system. His opportunities, and his dangers, are in the area of foreign policy.

Bush faces a different problem. He is an Eisenhower without Ike’s vast experience as a soldier and statesman. Eisenhower could use a strong Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, because of his own vast experience. Bush will have trouble choosing between the competing views offered by his numerous and strong-willed advisors. He, too, will have little scope for dramatic changes in domestic matters, especially if the economy falters, but he could stumble into a minefield abroad.

Thus, no matter who is elected, we can expect problems in the way that either man will tackle foreign affairs—Gore is inclined to go too far, Bush is inclined to do what he is told. Gore would certainly have to scale back his ambitions and seek a wider set of advisors. Bush would have to sit through a crash course on whom to trust and what is important to America in the world. Both will do better after their first two years. We, and the rest of the world, will have to be patient while the learning process takes place.

The American people are now deciding between a man who knows too much for his own good, but who generates suspicion, and one who knows too little, and who generates sympathy. Our allies and friends watch in amazement, but for us it is as important to elect a president that we like as well as one who can turn the policy crank, someone who will be just the right blend of monarch and Machiavelli.