Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Forget the Debates

James Skillen


October 23, 2000

Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore is an obvious first choice for president. The debates made that even clearer. But the debates focused too much on the candidates as TV performers rather than as team leaders. So, forget the debates and go back to judging the potential of each to fill the presidential office, which is nothing if not a position of team leadership.

After years in Congress and eight more as vice president, Gore should be a more mature and confident statesman than he appears to be. Like Clinton, he is still trying to win the approval of others. He certainly would make a good policy wonk at one of Washington's think tanks, but would he have the disposition and talents to run the institution as a whole? It is not obvious that he will have the patience to wait on congressional Democrats (much less Republicans) to reach policy compromises when he already knows the best answers. Without a landslide win on November 7, Gore may not have the stature to convince even congressional Democrats to approve his blueprints. And if the Republicans keep control of Congress, Gore could turn into a whiner before the end of his first six months in office.

Bush still looks like the new kid on the block despite his two terms as governor of Texas. He probably would not be hired at a think tank and would not want to work there anyway. Many Republican leaders and financiers more or less chose him before he proved he could win popular support across the country. So just what is his national leadership potential? Moreover, since he is running against or beyond the policy goals of many congressional Republicans, where will that leave him if he wins election (as Clinton did) with less than 50 percent of the popular vote? Will he have any congressional followers? And will he have the courage to veto budget-busting, surplus-snuffing bills like those that the Republican-led Congress is currently passing?

What we know for sure is that none of the proposals the two candidates have put forward during the campaign will become law as articulated. So which of them is more likely to demonstrate strong, wise, steady, team-building leadership both at home and abroad, given that he will have to negotiate with both Democrats and Republicans and with foreign leaders—both weak and strong—in every part of the world?

Let's put the question this way: If you are like me and wish you could vote for a candidate who stood for about half of what Bush stands for and about half of what Gore stands for, which of the two men do you think is most likely to give up his own "worst half" and open himself to what you or I think is the "best half" of the other? Is Gore more likely to listen to and win the support of congressional Republicans? Or is Bush more likely to listen to and win the support of congressional Democrats? Which candidate appears more able to face down the demands of the interest groups that have the greatest investment in him?

One can only guess at the answers to these questions, and one's vote should not be based only on such judgments. But my guess is that Bush is the better bet than Gore in this regard. Bush does not pride himself on knowing all the policy details and will depend on a strong executive team. Dick Cheney is the first team member. Bush knows he has to learn from others and not rush to judgment. To succeed even modestly as chief executive in Texas, he has had to work with both Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, he has maintained the same persona throughout the campaign, not changing styles, moods, and clothing at every turn to try to satisfy critics or friends. Steadiness should make the governing process—both domestic and international—more dependable. Bush looks like the one most likely to mature further as he works with others.

—James W. Skillen, President
   Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”