Mark Halperin of ABC says that his entire career up to this moment has been spent hurting America:
How ‘What It Takes’ Took Me Off Course: MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns. I’m not alone. The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage. Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has “what it takes” to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.
For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world. But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.
Case in point: Our two most recent presidents, both of whom I covered while they were governors seeking the White House. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are wildly talented politicians. Both claimed two presidential victories, in all four cases arguably as underdogs. Both could skillfully serve as the chief strategist for a presidential campaign. But their success came not because they convinced the news media (and much of the public) that they would be the best president, but because they dominated the campaign narrative that portrayed them as the best candidate in a world-class political competition. In the end, both men were better presidential candidates than they were presidents.
For instance, being all things to all people worked wonderfully well for Bill Clinton the candidate, but when his presidency ran into trouble, this trait was disastrous, particularly in the bumpy early years of his presidency and in the events leading up to his impeachment. The fun-loving campaigner with big appetites and an undisciplined manner squandered a good deal of the majesty and power of the presidency, and undermined his effectiveness as a leader. What much of the country found endearing in a candidate was troubling in a president.
When George W. Bush ran in 2000, many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate. As with Mr. Clinton, though, the very campaign strengths that got Mr. Bush elected led to his worst moments in office. Assuredness became stubbornness. His lack of lifelong ambition for the presidency translated into a failure to apply himself to the parts of the job that held less interest for him, often to disastrous effects. The once-appealing life outside of government and public affairs became a far-less appealing lack of experience. And Mr. Bush’s close-knit team has served as a barrier to fresh advice.
So if we for too long allowed ourselves to be beguiled by “What It Takes” — certainly not the author’s fault — what do those of us who cover politics do now? After all, Mr. Cramer’s style of campaign coverage is alluring in an election season that features so many candidates with heroic biographies and successful careers in and out of politics. (Not to mention two wide-open races.) Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes. In the face of polls and horse-race maneuvering, we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all. We should examine a candidate’s public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance. But what might appear simple to a voter can, I know, seem hard for a journalist.
If past is prologue, the winners of the major-party nominations will be those who demonstrate they have what it takes to win. But in the short time remaining voters and journalists alike should be focused on a deeper question: Do the candidates have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world?
Two big things mar the op-ed. First: the assertion of equivalence between Clinton's mistakes and Bush's. Clinton was a pretty good president, after all. Bush is not.\
Second: missing from the op-ed are two words: "I'm sorry."
And there is a third. Halperin writes:
When George W. Bush ran in 2000... [I] liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate...
Carlyle Group CEO David Rubenstein had a different reaction to George W. Bush:
David Rubenstein: you know if you said to me, name 25 million people who would maybe be President of the United States, he wouldn't have been in that category...
That was the reaction of everybody not on Bush's payroll who has met Bush I have talked to--everybody except our elite Beltway press, that is, people like Mark Halperin.