We tend to value “consistency” in our politicians — often, it seems, for its own sake. Ask Mitt Romney or John Kerry what happens when the electorate thinks a candidate is a waffler or a flip-flopper or just not strong enough on the issues. Kerry’s “I voted for the war before I voted against it” became the motto for Republicans looking to portray Democrats as weak on national security and too unsure to guide this country through the War on Terror. Conventional wisdom says that America needs a firm hand on the steering wheel — and a flight suit and a pair of cowboy boots can’t hurt.
During his second term, Ronald Reagan was so unwavering in his determination to support the murderous Contras in Nicaragua that he defied U.S. law and sold arms to Iran in order to pay the right-wing guerillas. During the 1960s and ’70s, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were so “consistent” in their support of America’s war against communism in all corners of the globe that they sent more than 50,000 Americans to die in Vietnam. Neville Chamberlain didn’t abandon his gospel of appeasement until Hitler’s army was just a few days away from Warsaw.
Each of these leaders could have benefited from a little less consistency and a little more consideration. Maybe Reagan should have sat down with Ollie North and said, “Hey, maybe Congress is on to something with this whole ‘don’t give weapons to nun-killing guerillas’ thing.” Every American president from Eisenhower to Reagan had the opportunity to re-evaluate the dominance of Domino Theory paranoia over U.S. foreign and military policy — but none did. And we all know that a thorough re-evaluation of isolationism could have saved Europe a lot of bloodshed in 1938.
Hindsight is, of course, 20-20. And for every leader who put his foot on the gas pedal and drove his country off a cliff, there’s a statesman whose brave devotion to principle successfully guided his country through difficulty: Lincoln and Churchill, for example. But these men, for all their moral firmness, were flexible and ingenious problem solvers able to adapt their strategies to changing circumstances.
Courageous and principled leadership is all too rare, here and in the rest of the world. No one can blame the American electorate for hoping that this election will produce a compelling statesman with unshakable morality. But too many voters have begun to see mindless ideology as a placebo for something much more rare: the ability to find a solution to a problem and implement it successfully. To do so requires not a zealous devotion to a single way of doing things, but instead the flexibility to choose the best course of action and the courage to change course (yes, Mr. President, change course) when the current one fails.
If the Bush years have taught us anything, it’s that a president who touts his hardheaded single-mindedness will probably govern in a hardheaded, single-minded way. In 2004, Bush managed to make 51 percent of the electorate believe that his obstinacy was indicative of principle, while his opponent’s evident willingness to ponder difficult issues represented a weak-kneed, un-American cowardice.
John McCain has staked his campaign on his consistent support for an extended American occupation of Iraq. If he’s wrong, what will America have gained from his “consistency”? More deaths? Eternally rising oil prices? An increasingly arrogant and imperious Iran?
In today’s politics, no candidate admits a willingness to try a new policy if the first one fails. But why not? Have we, as voters, been so thoroughly duped by Bush’s peculiar vision of principled leadership that we’re actually beginning to credit our presidents for being doggedly ignorant of reality? Why shouldn’t we admire a leader who is determined to find the right solution, even if it isn’t his own?
History has precious little praise for anyone who was “consistent” only in his wrongness. And history doesn’t much care if those who succeeded were right from the very beginning or only right when it counted. America can do itself a big favor by picking a candidate who will produce the right results, rather than one who trumpets the horn of consistency.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.