- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling’s verse offers more than evidence of his formative experience as a newspaperman. It has real value for the 2008 presidential race as well. The convergence of many factors — weighty issues, a narrowly but sharply divided political landscape, and wide-open races in both parties — make this as important a presidential race as any in decades.

Yet with so much coverage starting so soon, distilling the important will be paradoxically difficult. Kipling shows us not only the important, but the essential, for 2008.

The ubiquitous question of presidential elections is When? If ever there were a time when campaigns stole stealthily up on America, it long ago disappeared with the growth of the nation’s global importance and the presidency in it. Now a quadrennial cotillion of candidates unfolds, the heralding of the next impatiently awaiting only the ending of the last. This election’s contribution to When is the rapid acceleration of the party primaries to the point nominees could be determined when past campaigns were just beginning.

This raises this election’s surprise question: Where? The historical hopscotch of cross-country campaigns once highlighted the nation’s federal roots. This election, states are stumbling to supersede one another in a front-loaded frenzy of primary acceleration. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina’s early dates (all before Feb. 2, 2008) gave these small states a disproportionate impact. Now Florida is looking at Jan. 29 in order to leap-frog by a week almost a dozen other states’ (with New York just having joined) primaries on Feb. 5.

This transformation of the nominating process from marathon to sprint leads even more rapidly to the favorite question of modern presidential politics — Who? It is not surprising that Who is presidential politics’ most popular question because personality-driven coverage dominates every other news area. In presidential politics, it has its own regularized cycle. Beginning with expansive coverage of every potential entrant, it narrows to front-running entrants, then to two contestants for each nomination, and finally to two nominees. This is followed by a brief vice presidential boomlet, mimicking in smaller fashion the expansive pre-primary presidential speculations, until finally there remain four personalities on which to focus (and focus and focus … ) for the remainder of the race.

What and Why are the stepchildren questions of presidential elections. The importance of What — the candidates’ policies, and programs — is universally recognized but only briefly scrutinized, despite the profuse protestations of all concerned. Proposals are rolled out to demonstrate seriousness, but are almost as quickly neutralized in conflicting campaign claims and dueling assertions.

Why is even more important than What but even more overlooked. Knowing Why — the underlying foundation that orients a candidate — is to know the candidate’s compass, giving insight on issues beyond the foreseen and discussed. And Why can convince an electorate to support a president even if it initially doesn’t accept a particular policy.

This brings us to the orphan, yet the most essential, question of presidential politics: How? Most candidates and countless commentators can handle the other five questions, but the truly indispensable person will tell you how something can be done. It is the difference between the practical and the theoretical — and America and the rest of the world. This is a nation that celebrates the tangible, practical accomplishment. Our great thinkers are also doers — preponderantly inventors and innovators. Vision alone is not enough, America expects it to be fulfilled.

As important as How is in any circumstance, it will be particularly important in 2008 because of the convergence of challenges during the next president’s tenure. Most likely America will begin 2009 with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and continue to confront a global terrorist threat. At home, Baby Boomers begin retiring in 2008, beginning a surge in entitlement spending. Taxes will dramatically increase for millions of middle-income Americans unless the effects of the alternative minimum tax are prevented and, after 2010, taxes will dramatically increase for virtually all income taxpayers without extension of 2001’s lower rates. And more — global climate change, immigration reform, health care reform — could be added.

These important policy challenges will confront an equally challenging political environment. Absent a landslide victory that delivers enormous political capital to one party, America’s will continue to be a narrowly and bitterly divided electorate. The president will be working with a Congress in the most prolonged and precarious political balance in its history and a Supreme Court hinging on a single vote.

While Kipling’s “six honest servingmen” allow us to focus on the important in the 2008 presidential race, three in particular allow us to focus on the making of a president. Few presidents get to the White House without a What — a set of policies tested in campaign, approved by election, and giving license to the president-elect to pursue them and Congress to act on them. Fewer presidents get to office with a Why — the leadership lodestone that gives the nation confidence that they know the president, even when the president must confront the unknown.

Most important, and yet fewest of all, are the presidents entering office with a How — the ability to not only envision, but enact, a solution. How ultimately defines our great presidents and 2008 is an election that needs one more than most.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget in 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member in 1987-2000.


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