The Humble Presidency

obm-arrgntI write to suggest that humility should be the primary consideration as we decide among presidential candidates.  Please at least give this notion a chance – even those of you who think my left turn signal indicating a desire to move into the passing lane from the traveling lane is a personal affront necessitating your instant acceleration and erasure of the 100+ plus yard gap between your trailing vehicle and mine, thereby preserving your honor, albeit at a speed in excess of that at which you were happy to travel just prior to the application of my offending turn signal. (Due to the frequency of this occurrence, I refer to my turn signal as “the accelerator.”)  The Dunkin Donuts radio commercial certainly made a good point when it said that using a blinker is like giving information to the enemy. 

We have the same visceral, knockdown, drag out fights every presidential campaign season, but voters do not have to be each other’s enemies in choosing a president.  I say this not as some “can’t we all just get along” plea, but rather because nearly all of the fighting is entirely misplaced.  By focusing on humility in choosing from among the many candidates who obviously have intellectual capability, we would have a happy choice from among several who clearly would be better for all of us than what we typically get.  Granted as HL Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard,” and adopting the change I suggest might or might not result in our deserving and receiving better, but at least we would return to making decisions together, locally, and lawfully, thereby legitimizing them.  Those who profit from all the distraction and misplaced fighting might appear to suffer, but I can live with that.

I submit that no one of us is sufficiently infallible to do a very good job of choosing a president the way we have, which is based on how uniformly that person adheres to our views on the multitudinous issues of the day, and we do not even limit ourselves to possible issues.  For example, currently we get all jacked up by attack advertisements, the media, and other advocates to choose a president based even on our disagreements with decisions a candidate might have made at the state level, even though the candidate believes that issue is not one for the federal government and, thus, has no intention of acting on it as president.  We also have the delirium of candidates offering counterproposals in response to those who pledge free college (someone cue Sammy Davis singing “The Candy Man”), as if any of that is the business of a president.  Instead, I suggest in short, choosing someone who truly appreciates that our form of government calls for a president who is humble enough to not want the job and to abhor the notion of increasing the power of the job once in it, and who truly appreciates that this would serve all of us best.  A humble president already would be honest, lacking in any sense of entitlement, and desirous of helping by advancing the discussion and deciding now only what must be decided now.  Humility would make sunset provisions the norm and not the exception in statutes so that the burden would be on the lawmaker not just to get something passed, but also to show that that something was good enough to be re-enacted later.  Currently we have countless laws that have outlived their purpose, or worse, linger despite more enlightened scrutiny, simply because one from among either the house, senate, or the oval office, acting alone, can preserve as law the product of a prior opportunistic and only temporary majority. 

It would go against the very nature of a humble president to disparage gratuitously, to demonize the holders of opposing views, or otherwise contribute to the ever coarsening of our political discourse.  Such a president would respond appropriately to tragedies, but would not exploit them as opportunities not to be wasted to jam through changes that would not be supported in normal times.  Such a president most certainly would not have judgment colored by a desire even to be re-elected. 

We should choose someone who recognizes that some decisions have to be made by the president, and who dutifully would make them based on sound judgment and other virtues, but who understands that we forever will remain fallible beings.  With this fundamental understanding of our fallibility would come the understanding that most decisions currently thrust upon (and many more undertaken by) presidents do not belong in the hands of a president or anyone else employed by the federal government, no matter how important those decisions might appear and no matter how compassionate a president might be.  I refer, of course, to decisions that under our Constitution are within the jurisdiction of the states, and many of those the states are wise to have decided even more locally still.  I refer also to the decisions that should be made by individuals based on the standards of decency it is our duty to have learned and to have been teaching others. 

Such a president would stop in its tracks the longstanding practice of those who, due to impatience with their own inability to convince neighbors and/or politicians and/or courts of the rightness of their views, figuratively go over towns’ and states’ heads to seek redress from the federal government on matters that are not the business of the federal government.  A common ruse while utilizing the courts in this way is to pigeon hole Supreme Court Justices as being either in favor or against something or someone in the discharge of their duty to uphold the law of the land, such as being for or against medical care for the poor (not the court’s job) when interpreting a simple sentence in a statute, or being for or against the dignity of gays when deciding simply whether issues of marriage remain for the states.  Once in a while supreme court decisions display the tangled webs of a single justice, first usurping authority by straining language in order to accomplish what the justice believes would help make the world right, only to lament the very practice by others on the court in a decision just one week later.  The relevance here is that a president who understands the humility required of all federal officials in the lawful performance of their duties would appoint only justices who also “get it,” and there would be no need for a litmus test of appointees’ personal beliefs because they would not make judicial decisions based on them.  Similarly, beware any candidate who espouses states’ rights, except when he or she does not, such as in vowing to seek a federal ban on an activity made lawful by the federal government when it had no authority to do so in the first place.  Of course, that candidate instead should advocate for getting the federal government out of that line of business.

People who engage in these ruses whether in federal court, Congress, or elsewhere, no doubt feel sufficiently correct in their aims to believe the ends justify the means in wrongfully using illegitimate (imaginary) federal powers to impose their views on others.  Of course, the door is thereby opened for still others, with other equally heart-felt aims, to exploit or even widen the same paths of intrusion on the Constitution and thereby wrongfully impose their views.  The resulting status quo under which we currently live, is an ever growing government utterly lacking in legitimacy, but not just that. The result is a government that increasingly is far, far beyond the pleas of the governed on the very issues that by law are supposed to be local.

The way matters stand now, we choose presidents based on scorecards of their adherence to our pet solutions to an ever expanding list of so-called problems.  For example, folks become apoplectic about whether a presidential candidate’s proposal for job growth matches ours, as if the candidate even could know “the” right thing to do, or that we as individuals somehow know what the government should impose on others.  How often do we pause to notice that each political party has had its chances to implement one proposal after another to “grow” jobs, reaching into our pockets for each of these undertakings, and have done so for so long that, if they knew even a little about what they were doing, by now we would have to wield clubs to beat back the resulting invasive weed-like growth in jobs.

The kind of president I believe we should seek would respond to the wide-ranging demands of journalists, lobbyists, and even voters during campaign season by asking questions like, “Well, what does your governor say?” and, “How about your legislature?” Any wise parent knows to ask these sorts of questions and ask them frequently.  We need a president who recognizes the difference between federal and state issues, and that not getting one’s way . . . quite as fast as one wants it . . . on a non-federal issue . . ., means that a person simply has not made sufficiently the case for that cause in its rightful, non-federal forum.  A president should feel that even on truly federal issues, with the exception of true emergencies, the ends almost never justify the means in shoving one’s (inherently fallible) solutions down the throats of those one has not convinced. 

A humble president would recognize what is federal and what is not, and no matter how pure and genuine a concern for the plight of others, such a president (or Congressman, or a Supreme Court Justice) would not usurp authority to impose a favored solution, and instead would insist that we allow individual states to get around to “seeing the light,” if indeed that is what is needed.  Out of respect for lack of authority, a humble president certainly would put a stop to the practice of distorting the commerce clause (which James Madison assured us was “a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained”) to achieve still more lofty ends.  No matter how great a president’s compassion, too great is the dishonesty, too great is inherent fallibility, and too great is the injury in opening the door for oneself and thereby, for all who follow with who knows what on their minds, to act out of equal impatience to achieve the form of “progress” they have conceived for the many who as yet just do not appreciate the purported grandeur of their designs.

However well-intentioned, the “no labels” group is merely yet another army for so-called progressivity, as it fails to appreciate that the so-called “labels” accompany valid principles, and that so-called “gridlock” is what results (thankfully) in our system when advocates have not made their cases sufficiently.  Breaking this so-called gridlock by magnanimously engaging in give and take, perhaps out of cognizance of one’s own fallibility, sometimes might be fine and dandy, but very often the offending inabilities to agree at the federal level are due to just that, non-agreement due to failures of advocates to make their cases sufficiently.  What “progress” results from moving forward on a supposed solution then?  Typically these “failures to do something” are not even over matters that are properly within the federal sphere, anyway. 

Imagine, if you would, how much better things would be if we merely seek a humble president who is sure to make reasonable decisions on truly federal issues by duly considering legitimate opposing points of view, (sometimes deciding in line with our views and sometimes not), but who has the humility to refuse to encroach on matters that should be left much closer to the rest of us to resolve locally, albeit after more work, . . . and leave it at that.  Let the “Great Conversation” go on where legally it should.

Comments are closed.