EVERY four years, New Hampshire voters play an important role in screening contestants for presidential nominations. What qualities should they, and we, be looking for in this election year?Skip to next paragraph
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Most voters look for five important qualities: honesty, intelligence, political experience, leadership, and a candidate's ability to communicate confidence, ideas, and vision.
Party activists in both parties often become preoccupied with a candidate's political philosophy. The populist left and the populist right often reward message carriers; Pat Buchanan and Tom Harkin will doubtless win some added votes from these quarters. But most voters reward political pragmatism and political centrism - of the Bush, Kerrey, and Clinton stripe.
What about character? Voters yearn for someone who can be trusted. They hate a phony who says one thing to one audience and another to another audience. Voters are also interested in a candidate's appeal. They value intellectual honesty.
They also want someone who, within reason, keeps promises. George "Read-My-Lips" Bush gets criticized on this score - yet most voters knew that he probably couldn't keep his no-new-taxes promise, so maybe they will forgive him. Patriotism, family image, and a candidate's commitments to America's central values - liberty, equality of opportunity, and social justice - are also part of a candidate's appeal.
We want a person in the White House who is a lot like us - yet better than us. This is one of the most fascinating paradoxes of presidential elections. That's why candidates play horseshoes, visit bowling alleys, and try to do a lot of listening in these earlier primaries. It turns out, of course, that they are generally more like us than better than us - yet we invariably are disappointed when we discover they aren't saints.
This year voters are looking for someone who can help infuse new vitality into the American economy. Most people realize that a president cannot singlehandedly jump-start the economy. Still, voters want a candidate to understand their concerns and to talk sensibly about ways America can become competitive in the global economy.
Foreign policy and national security issues are less important in 1992 than in some election years. But a candidate still has to convey that he has large ideas about a new world order, trade relations, the Middle East, and the United States's role in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.
There are three other considerations voters should keep in mind as they assess candidates this year. First, is the candidate an astute alliance-builder? Presidents have to be good negotiators and builders of coalitions. They must do this within their party, across interest groups, in Congress, in the bureaucracy, and among nations. A president who is inept at bargaining and bringing about alliances to rally around new policy initiatives will very likely be an ineffective president.
Second, a successful president is a shrewd recruiter of talent. One of the presidency's greatest powers is the power to appoint and nominate. Thus, voters should take a hard and close look at who now advises the various candidates for president, and who are their friends and colleagues.
Third, voters should ask the candidates about their commitment to constitutional principles. Do they value the role of a strong Congress, an independent press, and competitive political parties? Do they believe in regular press conferences and do they have a healthy regard for a robust First Amendment? Watergate, Iran-contra, and related events of the Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan presidencies suggest that when the going gets tough, too many presidents and their aides become secretive, manipulative, and vio late the basic norms of constitutionalism.
As the majority report from the Iran-contra hearings reminds us, "The theory of the Constitution is that policies formed through consultation and the democratic process are better and wiser than those formed without it." An effective president will fashion policies with the advice and consent of Congress and will refrain from lying to Congress. An effective president will ensure that everyone at the White House and in the Cabinet obeys the law and understands the Constitution.
New Hampshire voters get the first crack at raising these concerns. Others' turns come soon. All of us need to be asking ourselves what are the leadership qualities and values we want in our next president. It is we, and not they, who should be writing the presidential job description.