The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.