Ethics & Public Policy Center

Politics Is Not Total War

Published in The New York Times on June 2, 2019


This essay is adapted from Peter Wehner’s book The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.


Every time I left a job in government — in the Reagan administration and in both Bush administrations — my I.Q. rose by 30 points. Or so it seemed.

The explanation is simple: It turns out that offering opinions in newspapers, on blogs, in television interviews, or from behind a microphone is a heck of a lot easier than actually governing. Like the rest of the world, I can watch Republicans and Democrats running the government, and from a safe distance after things have played out explain how they could have been done so much better or more easily. When I worked in the White House, I was struck by how many decisions involved weighing competing goods while from the outside they seemed to be simple matters of right and wrong.

The difference between governing and critiquing those who govern is like the difference between an N.F.L. quarterback playing a game and a coach watching a film of the game, running it forward and backward, seeing all the opportunities that were there that the quarterback didn’t take advantage of in the moment. It’s much easier to beat an all-out blitz while watching it in slow motion, frame by frame — or from the comfort of a couch — than it is as the offensive line is being overwhelmed and you have two and a half seconds to make the throw. We even have a phrase for this phenomenon: Monday-morning quarterbacking.

This observation isn’t meant to excuse the failures of those who govern. They are elected to do a job and they should be held accountable. My point is that when you’re actually in government, you see the challenges in a more nuanced way. You understand how difficult and sometimes intractable the problems facing the country are. And certainly when you’re in the White House, you never face easy matters. Those will have been solved at a lower level.

Politicians are partly responsible for bringing the disdain of the public upon themselves. When running for office, they tend to present the choices facing America in simplistic terms. Politics is often framed in black and white, with all the arguments lining up on your side and none on the other, and once you arrive at the right solution — once you check the right policy box — the hard work is done.

Of course it turns out that governing is a good deal more complicated. When debating the merits of policies as a government official, I often heard competing arguments made by knowledgeable, articulate people that sounded persuasive. That was certainly the case with embryonic stem cell research, where the promise of healing came into conflict with President George W. Bush’s moral convictions about the value of developing life.

Those arguing on different sides of an issue almost always make valid points — and usually there are downsides to their arguments as well. One decision may improve things in a certain area; another decision may improve things in a different area. In real life, the arguments rarely line up 100 percent on your side and zero percent on the other. It’s usually closer to 60-40.

For example, tax cuts may spur greater economic growth while also increasing the deficit and widening income inequality. Imposing tariffs on steel imports may protect the steel industry, but as a result they will make steel more expensive for automakers, a cost that is passed on to consumers.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws may decrease crime by keeping some violent people in prison for a long time — but the effects of these incarceration policies may not be as great as many people think, and they might also put too many people behind bars who shouldn’t be there, which can have a devastating impact on communities and families.

There can be enormous humanitarian costs in deciding not to act to solve wickedly complicated problems. In 1994 Bill Clinton decided against intervening in the Rwandan genocide, in part because the United States had just pulled its troops out of a disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The decision was understandable. But Mr. Clinton has since called his failure to intervene in Rwanda one of his biggest regrets, saying that he believes that had we stepped in at the beginning of the genocide, at least 300,000 people might have been saved.

In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke wrote to a friend and fellow member of Parliament that “every political question that I have ever known has had so much of the pro and con in it that nothing but the success could decide which proposition ought to have been adopted.”

Burke was right. It’s impossible to know the exact consequences once abstract ideas are imperfectly put into effect in the real world, which is untidy and unpredictable.

Those in decision-making positions are often forced to make consequential judgments on incomplete information in a compressed period in an attempt to solve difficult and enduring problems. And the outcome of those decisions may well be determined by contingencies that are difficult to anticipate. That’s why it is important to look for leaders who not only have the right principles, but also discernment, wisdom and the ability to see around corners. And it’s important to keep our expectations realistic, because disillusionment begins with illusion-ment, which we should avoid.

All this should cause us to cut our leaders more slack, including presidents we didn’t vote for. Their jobs are harder than they seem. At the same time, this realization should make us more critical of leaders who encourage the deformation of our expectations.

One of the problems with the rise of what we have come to call populism in America is that in many instances it has gone well beyond expressing legitimate grievances in the face of political failure; it has instead sown corrosive distrust of and cynicism about our governing institutions and politics in general. Donald Trump is a master at this, often behaving more like an observer than a participant, even as president of the United States, offering comment on politics rather than engaging in leadership. The result is to encourage simplistic expectations and assumptions of bad faith.

This leaves many Americans drenched in a distaste for the actual practice of politics and the craft of governing. They believe that all politicians are knaves and fools, and that the system is endemically corrupt and rigged, and so (figuratively speaking) the village needs to be burned to the ground. This is dangerous nihilism. But oddly enough, it is a function of expectations that are too high, not too low: It is rooted in an assumption that governing is easy, that if our leaders really wanted to solve all our problems, or if we elected people who did, they could.

A higher view of politics would have to begin with more realistic expectations, and with an appreciation of the difficulties inherent in the jobs we ask our leaders to perform.

Why should we care about politics at all when the temptation might be to give up on it out of frustration and anger? Because to give up on politics is to invite catastrophe. Politics is about many things, but it is finally and fundamentally about justice. If we get our politics wrong, there can be a terrible human cost.

There are many things that give purpose and meaning to our lives that lie beyond politics — human relationships, family and friendships; music, movies and art; sports and philosophy; poetry and books; nature and faith. At its best, politics gives us the space to live our lives and pursue our passions. And at its very best, politics ennobles us by attaching us to the great cause for justice and human dignity.

But that can’t happen unless and until we recover a sense of the importance and the difficulty of political leadership, a respect for the craft of governing and the value of doing it well. Sometimes people overly idealize politics, and that’s a mistake.

But so is constantly denigrating it. The two are connected: To have a realistic sense of what politics can do is to grasp its limitations but also its importance and its potential. And it is to grasp that politics is not just something other people do while we judge them from afar. It is something for which, and through which, we are all responsible.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer, as well as the author of the forthcoming book “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump,” from which this essay is adapted.

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