jump to navigation

Voters seek simplicity (San Francisco Chronicle) August 1, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

One way to frame the Bush-or-Kerry choice this fall is to decide whether you prefer your leaders in black-and-white or gray. Do you long to hear the nation’s leader boil issues down to simple meat-and-potatoes terms, a la George W. Bush, or do you prefer your political rhetoric dished up in a casserole by John Kerry?

President Bush has styled himself the clear-thinking, plain-talking Texan. When it comes to the war on terrorism, he famously said, “You’re either for us or against us.” He recently summed up the complex situation in Iraq by saying, “There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops.”

By contrast, Sen. John Kerry speaks of the complexities of the Iraq War. When asked directly whether he would have invaded Iraq, he responds that the question is hypothetical because of so many variables. Kerry tries to split fine hairs, noting that he voted as a senator to give the president authority in the way he did. Kerry likes to say, “Some issues just aren’t that simple.”

The last time voters faced such a choice in a presidential election, the candidate who conveyed a simpler, big-picture message, Ronald Reagan, defeated the leader who saw and conveyed tough complexities, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. As president, Reagan painted large and hopeful themes, such as America as “the city on a hill” and the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Carter seems bogged down in policy details, as reports emerged that he even managed who played on the White House tennis courts.

As many have pointed out, however, Bush is not Ronald Reagan, and simplicity is not always a virtue in high office. Even Reagan made many nervous that he did not grasp sufficient policy detail. Bush seems to dig in and hold his position even when facts emerge that undercut it. For example, once it became clear that weapons of mass destruction were no longer a rationale for invading Iraq, Bush responded that this did not change his view about the war, even though polls show most Americans no longer supported that policy when all the facts were in.

Still, at a recent rally, Kerry, under questioning from a dubious voter, admitted, “I understand you have to boil it down.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes once described what he, and presumably most voters, would like to see from leaders: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Voters become nervous when they think a candidate views important issues simplistically and fails to see the complexities. On the other hand, they do not seek to elect a college professor who easily becomes mired in the complexities and cannot find his way out of the swamp.

Come election day, voters will prefer the candidate they believe understands the complexities of foreign and domestic policy, but who can articulate them in simple, straightforward terms. Voters already believe Bush has found simplicity; he must convince them it is the simplicity that understands and transcends complexity.

Kerry — a man who seems to relish complexity — faces the more formidable challenge of fashioning a simpler, more comprehensive message. It will not be sufficient, when asked in televised debates whether he would have invaded Iraq, to say that is a complex, hypothetical question with too many variables to answer. As Bush said at a recent campaign stop, “There are some questions that a commander in chief needs to answer with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

The op/ed appeared on Page B-9.

%d bloggers like this: