Green Room

The placeholder president

posted at 3:45 pm on August 15, 2012 by

Admit it. Some of you have to have thought a few times over the past four years: I’m glad John McCain isn’t president.

I usually think it when violence erupts abroad, particularly in the Middle East, and I see a clip of the Arizona Senator on the news urging support or encouragement of some revolutionary movement.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the current White House has handled the country’s position or messaging with any aplomb during rebellious unrest overseas. I’d even agree with Sen. McCain that the administration’s approach has often seemed “feckless.” I’m just not convinced I would have preferred a 180-degree alternative—the use of blood or treasure in a “multilateral military force,” even if such proposals are coupled with “no U.S. boots on the ground” promises.

As much as I admire Sen. McCain and am grateful for his immense sacrifices for this country, I am uncomfortable with what seems to me to be a reflexively quick trigger finger. He has suffered firsthand the horror of war, so one can’t accuse him of being a “chicken-hawk.” But a strong hawk he is, and many conservatives are wary of using too much muscle, even while supporting a more muscular foreign policy.

So, in a strange way, Barack Obama’s presidency has saved us from what might have been too many foreign entanglements, too many “adventures” overseas. For this, I’m glad, even if the result was accomplished through stumbling, rather than with purpose and direction.

But what would a “President McCain” have been like on the domestic front as the recession worsened? Sen. McCain has a reputation as a moderate, and if you look at his Club for Growth rankings, you see a picture of a man who became more fiscally conservative and limited government-conscious in the past few years, perhaps reacting against the excesses of the current administration. Those years, of course, coincide with the growth of the Tea Party, which itself sprung up in reaction to the overreach of big government—specifically to reckless spending and ObamaCare.

Without the Tea Party, would a President McCain have been a true limited-government fiscal conservative? Or would he have been a moderate pragmatist, leading us just far enough out of the ditch to keep us rolling until we got ever closer to the cliff of financial ruin?

His practical approach is one shared somewhat by Mitt Romney, someone who many conservatives didn’t like at first (myself included) because Romney had compromised so much when working with Democrats in Massachusetts. He’d come up with his own “RomneyCare” program there, after all, as a response to calls for health care reform. He was about as far from a Tea Party conservative as you could get without becoming the next token Republican on MSNBC.

If Romney had been the nominee in 2008 and won the presidency then, does anyone doubt he’d have governed with his pragmatic, risk-averse managerial competence? And would it have resulted in righting the ship of state, deck chairs all neatly arranged, just enough to keep us going as we headed toward that ice block off the coast of Newfoundland?

That Mitt Romney, however, is not the one who confronts us today. The environment has changed. Today, risk-averse leadership is out of fashion; bold fiscal conservatism is the new pragmatism.

Republican Governor Chris Christie has become popular within the GOP and his own fractious state of New Jersey because he’s not been shy about talking about fiscal imperatives and hard truths. Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin took on the perilous task of standing up to public sector employee unions and won—both in the policy and political arenas.

These governors are matched by Republican officials across the country who’ve come to office supported by Tea Party politics—not the politics of racism, as the left would have you believe, but, rather, the politics of racing away from financial disaster.

The battle against the Democrats’ radical liberal agenda has produced a revolution that has allowed Mitt Romney to step into a role he’s been comfortable with in the business world—that of a real leader. His new “board of directors,” America itself, is made up of fiscal conservatives. He’s chosen one of them as his running mate.

Barack Obama is looking more and more like a “placeholder” president, a role he knew how to play well after voting “present” so many times in his legislative past. Just as with Jimmy Carter, President Obama held the post as the country caught its breath after contentious years of internal and external conflict. (Apologies to George Bush, but he allowed himself to become a divisive figure by not adequately addressing his many critics.)

And now, just as it was at the end of the Carter term, the country seems ready to embrace real leadership, by politicians unafraid to tell the truth about the mess we’re in. The era of empty rhetoric is over. I’m hoping Romney becomes more and more Reagan-like as the days progress.


Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Barack Obama is looking more and more like a “place Eric holder” president


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