A political framework for security discourse

Democrats seem to me paralyzed by two fears. The first is that a really tough stand against the administration’s incompetence, arrogance, and fecklessness about Iraq and terrorism will expose them to accusations of being either weak or irresponsible about national security, with Republicans saying (in effect), “you’re only safe with us” . The second is the more general fear of officeholders and candidates that anything interesting and important could cost them an election by offending some group.

That the party that broke the military’s teeth on a worthless rock, leaving us unable to deal with real dangers like Iran and North Korea, that watched idly while a hurricane drowned a big city, that’s taken lifesaving medicine out of the hands of really desperate old and poor people to fatten drug merchants, that let Osama walk out of Tora Bora, and that can’t say a coherent sentence about bird flu, gets to claim it keeps us safe would be hilarious if it weren’t genuinely scary and outrageous. But the absurdity won’t turn an election just by being available to bloggers and Jeremiahs.

How about the following recipe, to appear with appropriate variations in every stump speech (no copyright, help yourselves, folks – and remember, repetition is a legitimate and powerful rhetorical device) :

Americans have always known there are worse things to lose than our lives. The Republicans think we’ve forgotten about them. And those are exactly the things this administration, and the Republican Congress, are willing to have us lose. They’re treating us like cowards, and we’re not.

This recipe allows a variety of things to be zipped in as examples. Civil liberties: Patrick Henry didn’t say “give me liberty as long as I don’t have to take any chances for it”; he said something quite different and he was right. Honor: Americans have never believed we should only do the right thing (telling the truth, not torturing prisoners, etc.) when it’s safe or cheap; we haven’t always got it right (how could we?) but when we’ve thought clearly about what we’re doing we’ve done the right thing even when it had real risks. Our children: Americans have never until now chosen to party on credit and leave our kids to pay the bill for decades to come.

(Then there are things that are much less important than our lives, and especially less important than, say, freedom. $2 gasoline is nice, but it’s not a national core value. Big profits for crooked contractors are not as important as the lives of soldiers sent out with the wrong vehicles and the wrong armor. And so on: good speechwriters could work these into the same trope.)

The second fear is one we have to stamp out ruthlessly. If there are things that are worse to lose than your life, there are certainly worse things to lose than your job. Candidates who cripple their execution of the job of candidate in order to get the job of representative or president or whatever, or don’t do what they were elected for because they think that well help them get reelected, are not realistic, hardheaded professionals, they are something very small and sad. And of course, they run a good chance of winding up losers both ways. We’ve seen a lot of good people fall into this trap; in my personal experience at the state level, I think this has to do with the coterie of lieutenants and aides for whom it’s actually more important that the boss win the election than it is for the boss, and who provide well-meaning but bad advice (see the last act of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral for a perfect example of this, as Thomas’ priests try to get him to run out the back door rather than do what he know he has to do).

Let’s try to catch candidates doing a really good job of candidacy, managing political risk instead of avoiding it, and make a really big fuss, perhaps accompanying contribution checks, when they do.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.