What kind of politician?

John’s reflections on politicians and businessmen would lead one to believe, not unreasonably, that Bill Clinton is the supreme politician of our time. No one excels at, or luxuriates in, the groin kick more than Clinton. Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal recalled:

One of our favorite Bill Clinton anecdotes involves a confrontation he had with Bob Dole in the Oval Office after the 1996 election. Mr. Dole protested Mr. Clinton’s attack ads claiming the Republican wanted to harm Medicare, but the President merely smiled that Bubba grin and said, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Yet, contrary to John’s conclusions, Bill Clinton was not well suited to dealing with Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, to pick two foreign leaders who posed the most difficult challenges to the United States during his presidency. In dealing with Saddam and Osama, Clinton was the master of the empty gesture.
Let’s return to John’s first point about the necessity of mastering political skills to rise to the top of the American political system. Who among postwar American presidents has executed the low blow on his way to the top as John McCain has against Mitt Romney? Not Truman. Not Eisenhower or JFK — the presidents whose military service gave them a prestige most like McCain’s.
Johnson and Nixon present cases that conform more or less to John’s description of political ambition and ruthlessness. With the 1964 daisy ad, LBJ struck the lowest blow in postwar American politics, but it was not struck by Johnson personally. Johnson himself barely acknowledged Goldwater’s existence in the presidential campaign of 1964. Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns also mostly performed their wiles through the services of third parties rather than through the candidate himself.
Given the circumstances of his ascent Ford is a special case. Carter, Reagan, and Bush all obviously displayed the ambition necessary to become president. In his winning 1976 primary campaign and in the national campaign against Ford, Carter struck no particulary low blows, though Carter’s nastiness was visible, as it was in the 1980 campaign against Reagan. (Carter himself declared that he didn’t “think [he] would ever take on the same frame of mind that Nixon or Johnson did — lying, cheating, and distorting the truth.”)
Reagan’s 1980 campaign was mostly free of low blows. In his own way Carter tried to recycle the LBJ daisy ad, portraying Reagan as a man who could not be trusted with his finger on the nuclear button. In the course of the campaign Reagan awkwardly responded to a heckler with a statement tying Carter to the Klan; Carter implied that Reagan was a racist. In retrospect, the campaign seems almost high-minded.
John’s observation that success in politics at the highest level requires extreme ambition and ruthlessness is certainly correct. But does it require the kind of low blow that McCain has been administering to Romney? If so, the great politicians do a better job of it than McCain has.
Although McCain’s military service provides some insulation against reaction to his low blows against Romney, it is not even clear to me that they have enhanced his candidacy in any way. On the contary, given his own record on the point in issue regarding support for the surge, I am struck by the lack of necessity for McCain’s tactics, as well as by their revelation of the least attractive qualities of his otherwise sterling character.
McCain’s low blows seem to me to betray his hatred of Romney more than his poltical skill. I doubt they are the mark of a great politician, and I doubt that he will hate his Democratic rival as much as he hates Romney.
JOHN adds: All interesting points. My claim would be more that Romney is an amateur, rather than that McCain is a particular master of the art. And I’m afraid Paul is right that when primary season is over, we will have seen the last of McCain’s most aggressive side.
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