“Leading from behind.” That’s what an unnamed White House aide told the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza that Barack Obama was doing on Libya.
It’s an apt description of Obama’s feckless handling of the debt ceiling debate. He kept calling for a tax increase even though there was never a majority in either house of Congress for one and even after Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid dropped any such demand.
But leading from behind is also a description of what most of the declared and all-but-declared Republican presidential candidates were doing on the debt limit issue.
Two backed the deal — Jon Huntsman, who has not yet won widespread support, and Thaddeus McCotter, who seems to be running a whimsical campaign, though he is a serious member of Congress.
The two other candidates with a vote on the issue voted no. Ron Paul, often a lonely nay in the House, was a predictable no. Michele Bachmann, a backbencher in her three House terms, said the deal “spends too much and doesn’t cut enough.”
Others said little or nothing. The Daily Caller couldn’t get comments from spokesmen for Herman Cain or Rick Santorum. Rick Perry, not yet a declared candidate, said he liked the cut, cap and balance bill passed in the House but rejected in the Senate.
Tim Pawlenty called the deal “nothing to celebrate,” and Newt Gingrich said it could be “a destructive failure.” Mitt Romney, running on his supposed economic expertise, said, “While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”
Now it’s true that few members of Congress looked to these candidates (even those that are colleagues) for guidance on the issue, and there’s a history of presidential candidates casting cheap-shot no votes on debt ceiling bills (e.g., Barack Obama in 2006).
But it’s also true that anyone who actually gets to be president will at some point be compelled to call for raising the debt ceiling. Failing to do so and defaulting on the nation’s debt could have catastrophic effects.
Most of these candidates are obviously seeking to appeal to the millions of ordinary citizens who have become active in politics over the last several years, notably in the tea party. That movement, as I’ve written, has on balance strengthened the Republican Party, propelling it to a record victory in November 2010.
But it may be weakening the Republican Party in 2012 by demanding that its presidential candidates take positions that no president could ever take.
We have seen this kind of thing before. The last such inrush of millions of ordinary citizens into political activity was the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. On balance, it strengthened the Democratic Party in congressional elections.
But it also advanced presidential candidates who proved to be less than ideal nominees in November — the diffident Eugene McCarthy, who did not win the 1968 nomination but might have if the present system of primaries had been in place, and the earnest George McGovern, nominated because of his opposition to the Vietnam War rather than his record in office, who lost 49 states in 1972.
Strong peaceniks and strong tea partiers alike tend to be attracted to candidates who promise to do impossible things — cut off funding for a war, default on the national debt. Facing such constituencies, competing candidates will try not to leave any room between them and the Democratic left or the Republican right.
This may be accentuated because this cycle’s crop of Republican candidates has no one with the high-level experience in foreign or fiscal matters that some contenders in the Democratic fields of 1968 and 1972 had.
Its current members of Congress have been backbenchers. Most of its governors have had no federal or foreign policy experience. The exception — Huntsman, former ambassador to Singapore and China — tends to prove the rule.
Some time between now and the first caucuses and primaries, some of these candidates may present a more serious fiscal and economic platform than any of them has so far. In the meantime, it’s tempting to seek quick votes by promising the impossible and pledging to do things no president ever would.
The problem is that once you get in office this way, you may end up “leading from behind.” Just ask Barack Obama.