One way of looking at the dynamics of the presidential race is this: Will BC04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent’s character? Or will KE04 succeed in making the election about the incumbent’s record?
The character/competence choice is hardly a new development in presidential politics, but I certainly can’t remember an election where an incumbent struggled so hard to avoid any discussion of the actual impact of his actual policies on the actual condition of the country. For that reason, it’s pretty important that the challenger continue to draw attention to Bush’s actual performance in office.
On the issue of the relative importance of character and competence–not in politics, but in George W. Bush’s real lifelong passion, baseball–the best lines I’ve ever read were written back in 1983 by the Kansas Sage Bill James. In a tirade aimed at then-Detroit manager Sparky Anderson for his frequent praise of Tiger first baseman Enos Cabell as a “we ballplayer” whose character justified his position in the lineup, James said:
I mean, I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude, but Christ, Sparky, there are millions of people in this country who have good attitudes, but there are only about 200 who can play a major-league brand of baseball, so which are you going to take? Sparky is so focused on all that attitude stuff that he looks at an Enos Cabell and he doesn’t even see that the man can’t play baseball. This “we” ballplayer, Sparky, can’t play first, can’t play third, can’t hit, can’t run and can’t throw. So who cares what his attitude is?
No, I am not endorsing Bill James’ views about Sparky Anderson or Enos Cabell, but the underlying point is not only accurate, but is applicable to government as well as baseball: performance matters. If we are going to choose a president strictly in terms of admiring someone who is resolute, self-confident in his judgments, and ill-disposed to pay attention to contrary developments or the opinions of others, then there are probably millions of Americans who match or exceed George W. Bush in possessing these qualities. Hell, I know ten or twenty people like that. But I don’t think they’re qualified to serve as President of the United States.
You can certainly argue that the president has some character flaws with serious implications for the country, but in the end, the most compelling critique of the incumbent comes down to his performance in office. And if that record of performance is terrible, then: The man can’t play baseball. So who cares what his attitude is?