The greatest vulnerability for most politicians is not the unwise vote they cast a dozen years ago, or the youthful but still stupid favorable comment made about a bearded Latin American dictator. No, the real vulnerability comes when an elected official’s political position intersects with a requirement for competence.
Gaffes can be managed; being awful at your job in public can be fatal. Think about some of the great political leaders of the not too distant past, and then if you dare, think about leadership today.
Franklin Roosevelt was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and earned an Ivy League law degree, but still had few demonstrable skills beyond a sunny personality when he won the presidency. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said FDR possessed “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” And the great political analyst of his day, Walter Lippmann, dismissed Roosevelt as a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”
But Roosevelt was a born leader – decisive, informed, careful, yet willing to take a calculated risk. He surrounded himself with serious, smart, intelligent people who he empowered and for the most part listened to. Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II is reason enough to rank him among our greatest presidents.
For sure FDR made mistakes with personnel, but he was smart enough to put General George Marshall in charge of the war effort and dispatch his most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, to deal directly with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. Roosevelt was not a manager or meddler, but a grand strategist and his principle skill was as a communicator.
Churchill, most historians agree, was a meddler, but also a brilliant synthesizer, a leader constantly prodding and pushing his subordinates to do more and do it better. And Churchill accepted advice. As his most recent great biographer Andrew Roberts recounts, not once during the entirety of World War II did Churchill go against the unanimous advice of his top military advisers, a remarkable fact given that Churchill trained as a soldier and fought battles on three continents by the time he became prime minister.
No one in their right mind would suggest that the two great wartime leaders were anything but competent at their jobs. Tragically, and one hopes not fatally, we can’t say the same.
Three events – at least three that we know of – converged in short order to highlight the abject incompetence of the current American commander-in-chief. Dealing with a raging pandemic, a fragile economy shaken by the COVID-19 virus and the 20-year military quagmire in Afghanistan has laid bare Donald Trump’s true skill, which is to say he has no true skill useful to the current perilous moment.
The Republican politicians – think the Idaho delegation – who have belted their own reputations to the incompetence of a guy none of them would trust to manage a Dairy Queen (and I mean no respect to soft serve ice cream) deserve everything they will endure in the weeks and months to come. They have wrapped themselves in ineptitude hoping that partisanship would mask their own and the president’s failures.
Since most politicians default to thinking that their position will always prevail, they’ve been hoping – praying more likely – that what has happened over the last few days would somehow not be visited on Trump and his cabinet of bozos. Now it has and they own it.
Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole, hardly a Trump basher, nevertheless put a fine point on Trump’s ineptitude this week when he chastised the administration for its persistent and cavalier dismissal of the threat of a serious health emergency.
Cole was warning back in 2017 that Trump Administration inattention to budgets and personnel at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health would likely bite Trump where he sits. That prediction has now clearly come to pass. During a hearing this week Cole said the coronavirus outbreak and the abject failure of the administration to aggressively meet the crisis was a “sort of vindication of the bipartisan judgment over the last several years that this was really an area we needed to make investments.”
The Trump Administration has proposed steep cuts to these agencies in each of its four budgets, leaving Congress to devise, largely without the help of the agency experts its own funding and staffing priorities.
Trump actually said when it still must have seemed to him that he could employ ignorance to bluff his way through a pandemic that “some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if we have a need, we can get them very quickly.” Right.
The bumbler-in-chief when on: “And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”
Tell that to the hospital workers who will likely be overwhelmed soon with patients who need services which in many areas just may not be available.
As world markets tumbled from unrealistic and unsustainable heights, Trump went before the camera to peddle his unique brand of nonsense. No Churchillian honesty and candor for the guy who bankrupted a casino, rather we get bombast and misinformation. The number of coronavirus cases in the country stood at 15 at the time with every credible expert predicting a serious increase almost immediately. “Within a couple of days,” Trump said, it “is going to be down to close to zero.” We are now well over 1,000 cases.
Asked a few days later if he’d been briefed that as many as 100 million Americans could be exposed to the virus Trump didn’t exactly channel FDR in a fireside chat. “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you could possibly imagine. Many contingencies. A lot of positive. Different numbers, all different numbers, very large numbers, and some small numbers too … Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”
Amid all the other chaos this week we haven’t heard much about Afghanistan. We will. It, too, will be a disaster.
We are all advised not to touch our faces these days, but in moments like we’ve been experiencing a face palm every few hours seems entirely reasonable.