In an editorial in the December 28 edition of USA Today two writers asked if America was ready for an "idea guy" as president? The person who they had in mind was Newt Gingrich. But the question goes much further if their thought is expanded. Newt Gingrich self-describes his candidacy as that of an Idea Guy who knows what America needs. You have to admit, love him or despise him, he is a bright guy. (He routinely reminds us that he is!) He was a history professor and has a good grasp of a lot of facts and ideas about America, past and future. Personally I would love to see him debate the president. Gingrich jokingly says he would debate President Obama and even allow him to bring his teleprompter along. But the real question here is not, "Who is the smartest guy in the room?" I know a lot of smart people who can get very little done. I know a good number of very smart people who are not great leaders. (This is neither an attack nor an endorsement as you will see soon enough.)
Harry Truman said the job of president is trying to persuade the people to do what they should have had the common sense to do in the first place. Truman, who was despised by many when he was in office, is now highly respected as a pretty good leader. I happen to agree with his assessment of the office and the president's role. We do not need a genius leading the country. We need someone with good judgment, common sense and skills learned from life experience that serve the general well-being of the people. We need someone who can persuade Americans and the Congress to listen and follow. FDR had it, Ronald Reagan had it and Bill Clinton sometimes had it but repeatedly hurt himself by his foolish behavior.
The editorial hearkened back to one of our most prominent Idea Guy presidents, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was exceptionally bright, indeed our last president with a Ph.D. He had also been a college president. He even won the Nobel Peace price for his idea of The League of Nations. But The League became an obsession as his health broke down. He then refused to compromise and in the end his idea failed.
The editorial suggested that "the very talent that allows you to think 'outside the box' can then box you in to a position where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. This is doubly troublesome when the person with the idea doesn't know it's a bad one."
Have "idea" leaders been the best presidents? This is truly debatable. George Washington was not a brainiac but he had one big idea—the young nation should not be drawn into war among greater foreign powers! Abraham Lincoln's one big idea, that of the Union, saved the country in the long haul. Before he died in 1865 Lincoln had already put in plan the idea that the North would not punish the South after the War. This was not consistently carried out after his death but the idea was so important to our future.
Might American need, or want, an Idea Guy at this point in time? We shall see. The irony is that President Obama also ran as an Idea Guy filled with hope and bright new insights he would bring to Washington to save our republic. Unlike Gingrich he doesn't have the instinctive flair, opine the editors in their opinion piece, for sound bites and careful debate. I am not convinced he actually has a clue how to make his ideas work in the present context given his lack of leadership experience. Our last president, George W. Bush, was anything but an Idea Guy. He even said he went with his "gut instincts." How did that work? You be the judge.
Of the leading Republicans Romney says experience counts. Ron Paul says consistent principles matter most. Michele Bachman and Rick Perry campaign against the establishment, a stance that often attracts votes. Rick Santorum was an insider but is deeply committed to a moral bottom line joined with a fairly reasonable ability to explain it. But he has never governed, having served two terms in the Senate. The Senate has not often proved to be the best place to find great presidents.
So what will it be? A person with a few ideas who can govern and create some kind of compromise and deal with several hugely important issues or an Idea Guy? Gingrich strikes me as the anti-Obama, the Idea Guy from the opposite side of the pendulum. I could be wrong but I am not convinced such an Idea Guy can effectively lead the nation. I am pretty sure the Idea Guy we chose four years ago has not led us very well so far. (This is not intended as an ideological blow, just a common sense observation I hope.)
My other concern is whether or not the present process actually helps us find the best candidate(s). But that post is for another day. What we have is a form of active democracy and the sad part is so few people are involved. In the Iowa Caucus this week so few Republicans actually participated that it was really a small straw poll more than a true primary. How did we come up with these weird ways of choosing a candidate?