In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Woe is McCain: Impulsive Decision Maker

Bush's reckless comments and decisions are world-renown. Indeed, he was voted into office in part because he seemed more like a guy you could have a beer with than someone who had the care and thoughtfulness to make decisions about war and diplomacy, energy use and economics, etc. McCain and his VP choice, Sarah Palin, appear to be following suit (see Palin's comment about how she "didn't hesitate" and didn't "blink" when asked to be McCain's VP, and what looked like a rushed vetting process of her by McCain). The problem has come into full view with the most recent economic crisis and McCain's helter-skelter decisions surrounding it, including the melodramatic suspension of his campaign. Check out this well-put article on the subject (it's brief), where the writer points out the following:

"The solution was to try to make it look as if McCain were leading the heroic effort to save the American way of life. To do this, he had to portray the negotiations over [an economic] rescue plan -- which had been making orderly progress -- as stalled and in shambles...McCain succeeded in focusing attention on himself, but not necessarily in a good way. Voters may see this not as an illustration of brave leadership but as another example of McCain's 'ready, fire, aim' approach to dealing with any crisis. Putting himself at the center of events -- making any situation all about him -- is more than a political tactic for McCain."

This Washington Post article, by conservative columnist George Will, analyzes some more of McCain's erratic approach to the economic crisis. But for a more in-depth look at McCain's decision-making process (or lack of process), take a look at this PBS close-up video of him, done a few weeks ago. Then, for comparison, take a look at the piece done on Obama, where they asked the same question of how he makes his decisions. It's part of a larger series they are doing on how the candidates would lead, how they handle disappointment, and so on, that I'll be interested to watch some more of.

But the question of how one makes decisions is an important one. Are there usually lots of sides to an issue, and lots of research to be done before choosing A over B? What about when you get into presidential-level decisions? Do we want someone who, in the case of McCain always "goes with his gut" and, as the PBS piece points out, tries to make the quickest decision possible at times? The PBS piece quotes McCain saying, "I don't torture myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

To be sure, this is not a black and white argument, as "gut-level" decisions can result in good, honest stances, as has been the case at times with McCain; but, trusting one's judgment--which is often what is meant by "gut-level" decision-making--does not mean one can't follow a careful, researched process in approaching a decision. The process can provide all of the information on the possible positions, allowing the most accurate judgment call to be made; at that point, after all of the relevant points have been thoroughly considered, a decision "from the gut" could be fair and even preferable--but McCain is not known for gathering those important outside perspectives prior to making a decision. That's even supported by those on the right, such as Norman Ornstein from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who, in an interview for the above PBS piece, explained McCain's decision-making process in the following way:

"John McCain is a fighter pilot. A lot of his persona comes from being a fighter pilot.

This is a man who not only constantly questions authority, but is fond of making last-minute, from-the-gut, impulsive, risk-taking decisions, and believing to his bones that there may be a risk here, but it will pay off.

An impulsive decision-making style is fine if you're riding a jet. An impulsive decision-making style is fine if you're piloting a jet in combat [though I, Brendan, would interject that it wasn't fine with the three plane crashes McCain was responsible for as a navy pilot]. It's fine if you're a senator where the consequences are not going to be that long-lasting. It's a real question mark when you move into the presidency."

Decisions about what to eat for dinner, or other basic-level decisions, do not necessarily require or allow for a careful decision-making process--but bombing a country? Dealing with a financial crisis? Choosing a successor? Choosing folks to oversee entire swaths of the country and its governance, such as the Secretary of Commerce, Energy, Defense, or even Supreme Court Justices? Those decisions shouldn't be made on the fly. We've felt the effects of exactly that with the type of decision-making that has occurred under the Bush Administration; I've been surprised to hear about seemingly safe corners of the government falling into disarray or corruption, or both--from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (and that doesn't even go into the areas of more obvious corruption and disarray, such as the selling and subsequent mishandling of the Iraq war, the use of no-bid contracts in Iraq and otherwise, the inhumane torture of US detainees, etc., etc.).

These are at once managerial and ideological issues in my view, as they relate to the individuals Bush appointed to manage these agencies, but also the direction he gave them; in the business sector, we would not question the fact that a CEO is generally where the buck stops in terms of responsibility for the health or weakness of his/her company, so we shouldn't think any less for those responsible for governmental agencies. Thus, for all of these types of high-level decisions, I would insist on someone who is less impulsive (to use former Senator Gary Hart's word for McCain in the PBS clip), who weighs their decisions with the care and research that's required for issues of such importance. Our country and world can't afford much more of our recklessness.

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