Why is it a problem that Mitt Romney didn’t take a position on the surge in December 2006, when he was governor of Massachusetts? At that time, he hadn’t been to Iraq and he had not been briefed on the subject. He also lacked access to classified information. Nor can Romney be blamed for not having become an expert on Iraq. Being governor of Massachusetts is, after all, a full time job.
I suppose Romney could have relied on some combination of prejudice and the views of others. But, while this may be sufficient for bloggers and pundits, it’s not a sound basis for decisionmaking about whether to send 30,000 more troops into harm’s way. Romney did not take a position until he had studied the situation, and I think that’s to his credit.
John McCain rarely lets lack of information and expertise stand in his way. Iraq, of course, is a notable exception. McCain frequently visited Iraq and consulted with everyone he could. For this, and because he found the right answer, he deserves the great credit he claims.
But what about McCain’s other positions? He opposes drilling in ANWR because, in his words, the area is “pristine” (which in this case means barren) and he “wouldn’t drill in the Grand Canyon.” Has any candidate ever presented a less serious analysis of an important policy question?
He opposes waterboarding in part because “torture doesn’t work.” Maybe the things the North Vietnamese did to him at the Hanoi Hilton didn’t work, but we know from eye-witness accounts that waterboarding worked. When I asked McCain about this, he essentially accused the CIA of lying.
McCain’s tendency to make snap judgments based on prejudice rather than information, and his hostility to information that doesn’t conform to his prejudices, is perhaps the most frightening aspect of candidacy. It is also the most stark difference between McCain and Romney, outstripping any substantive disagreements in my view.
Neither the Romney’s style — “wallowing in the data” — nor McCain’s snap judgment style is ideal for a president. Great presidents rely at times on instinct and core beliefs, not just data. But a president who consistently relies on instinct and pooh-poohs data is likely to make major mistakes. Unless one thinks McCain is a genius (and I don’t), we’d probably be better off with Romney’s approach to making decisions.
UPDATE: My original post said that Romney had been briefed “little if at all” about Iraq at the time he declined to take a position. I hedged because I wasn’t certain of the timing of the briefings Romney received from Fred Kagan. I changed the post after the Romney campaign informed me that Kagan briefed Romney in 2006 about the size of our military, but did not brief him about Iraq until January 2007. This is also what Romney said during the debate last night, I think.
Romney backed the surge on January 10, 2007, the day the adminstration announced it.
A FINAL THOUGHT: The ideal president probably would tend to rely more on instinct in areas of his or her expertise, and more on data and the views of others in areas of non-expertise. That’s why I was glad to hear McCain say in November that he wasn’t that strong in economics and as president would be particularly keen on obtaining expert guidance in this area.
Lately, McCain has backed away from that statement. I hope (and not just in this respect) that the real McCain is the fellow I met on the Straight Talk Express in November, not the guy who has been on display lately.
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