I've been thinking a little about leadership lately. I'm going to make an extraordinary claim that many readers will disagree with: Bush is a great leader.
Before I substantiate that claim, I'll qualify it: while he's a great leader, he's leading in all the worst ways and to all the wrong ends. Bush is wrong in pretty much every conceivable way, but he instinctively knows how and why to use power. He continues to be politically potent, and practically unfettered in his use of power, despite being despised by the majority of Americans, losing the Congress to the opposition party, and being deeply invested in a hopeless losing war.
How does he do it? Where does this power come from? To understand this, you have to understand something about the nature of leadership.
One necessary, but not sufficient, condition of leadership is popular support. Bush has a solid core of that support and has at times had extraordinary levels of support. That great surfeit of support that rushed into his hands after 9/11 is the essential foundation of his leadership, and remains so even now that the tide has ebbed. Prior to 9/11 he was headed to the dust-bin of history; he would never have had the mojo to fuck things up real good.
Any President in Bush's position following the Afghan war could have translated that support into the second major tool of leadership: initiative. Initiative is taking action and getting others to follow. Initiative is what most leaders lack. It is often said that leaders in a democratic system tend to lead from the middle of the herd. That is a symptom of lack of initiative.
Another President might have chosen to turn the outpouring of support Bush enjoyed into thoughtful initiatives to make us more secure, better informed about our enemies, more engaged with the Arab world, or to lead the world against the use of terrorism. Such a President probably would have been considered by history to be competent at least, maybe even great. We know what Bush chose to use his initiative to accomplish instead - a bloody quagmire in Iraq, a raft of regressive domestic political initiatives including an attempt to dismantle a core element of our social contract, Social Security. Those choices make him an enemy of the average American, a carbuncle on the face of the Presidency, and the crown prince of idiots. But for all that, he did dare to dream big and to lead with conviction over the cliff of history.
Bush is a great leader. And unfortunately, Democrats seem not to have anyone who really understands leadership to the degree Bush does. Our candidate in 2004, John Forbes Kerry, certainly didn't. Even now, our nation is coasting on the inertia of Bush's spent Presidency, and there is not a single leader in the Democratic stable who is willing or able to hitch up and start using the power of leadership to pull us away from that cliff. They all seem to have a pathological fear of stepping out of the herd in order to really lead. The person who can harness the popular support Democrats won in the 2006 elections to inspired initiatives to take America in a new direction could literally make the Presidency politically irrelevant over the coming two years outside of it's constitutional powers. Instead, they all seem determined never to step outside the herd of their peers, who comprise the 'Conventional Wisdom,' to take a risk and really lead us somewhere in a manner other than incrementally.
Perhaps Dems are afraid to try to take the initiative without the sort of overwhelming support Bush had following 9/11? If that's what they are waiting for, they will likely wait forever. Meanwhile, the very people we look to for leadership, the wanna-be Presidents seeking the Democratic nomination, seem largely devoid of the sort of leadership skills Bush has displayed. They are all so polished and careful to be completely without any chinks for their enemies to hold on to, that they hurtle through the media-scape without any friction, unable to excite anyone to any purpose, except perhaps to capture the Presidential flag for our team.
A symptom of the professional timidity and carefully buffed sound bites coming from the Presidential contender crowd is how Senator Webb's rebuttal made a huge splash while no one remembers anything said by the contenders - largely because they really said nothing. Webb at least had the guts to really challenge Bush's initiatives with a withering criticism that left no doubt as to where he stands. The contenders couldn't even let go of bi-partisan namby-pamby platitudes long enough to memorably criticize the President's proposals.
Here's where we come to the title of this little rant. Those who rise to positions of leadership only to fail to provide any actual leadership are really just climbers. They satisfy their vanity, their pocketbooks, or what-have-you by climbing into prominent positions as an end in itself, not as a means of actually making a difference. They climb as high as they can get and then play it safe to ensure they stay there, so they can "make a difference" they tell themselves and others. But they never really do make a difference, or at least not a positive one. Instead, they compromise with the devil in order to have more chances to "make a difference". They stay, but the difference never comes, or if it does, it isn't positive.
A real leader risks everything in order to make the changes happen. They use their initiative to create change, in order to gain support, to provide more opportunities to use initiative to make more change. When a real leader arises in the Democratic party who can master this virtuous cycle to really lead America, that's the person you should choose to be our next President. Bush has been such a catastrophic success that we can't afford anything less than genuine leader as our next President. I urge those of you who are considering the growing field of wanna-be Presidents, to forget about your preconceptions and favorites and consider the next year an audition. See who really succeeds in turning their popular support into initiative and changes, and who just marches in the herd.