Greitens-Moulton 2020! A Bipartisan Ticket of Warrior-Scholar-Statesmen
Eric Greitens, Republican Governor of Missouri
Seth Moulton, Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts
A while back, as he inaugurated his series of implausible proposals for an American reformation, Ross Douthat wrote something to the effect of “sometimes counterfactuals and hopeless ideas can help expose very real problems, and equip us to think more proactively and reasonably about them.” (That’s a butchery, but I can’t seem to find the column where he made the argument.) In any case, what follows is another wildly improbable proposal which, for various structural and cultural reasons, will never ever go anywhere. But it’s an argument worth making, I think, because it highlights some very real problems with American politics these days, and perhaps can help someone to think a little more clearly about it.
So to begin: ever since about 2am Eastern Time on November 9th, 2016, people have been speculating about who will run for President in 2020. This has mostly been the domain of Democrats horrified at the Trumpification of the White House, who’ve been leaping from Hillary-esque Kamala Harris to new generations of Berniecrats. But the remnants of the NeverTrump Republicans, alongside some new Republican allies disillusioned by various aspects of the Trump presidency, have been putting names forth as well- John Kasich, of course, tops the list. And then, of course, there’s the usual speculation about Mark Zuckerberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and a host of small-name Senators and Governors scattered around the country.
I hate to add another fantasy-football ticket to this mix and stoop to the level of political tabloid-ism, but I’ll do it anyway. So- let’s look at the current situation of the Presidency as it relates to American political culture more broadly.
There probably have been times in American history where faith in the Presidency as an institution has been lower than it is today- the 1850s and 1890s come to mind- but none in recent memory. Many of our voting adults lived through the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, which, for whatever other flaws they had, nonetheless restored a sense of dignity and trust to the Presidency which had been destroyed through Watergate and was not helped by the stagnant Ford and Carter presidencies. But since Bush Sr., things seem to have gone downhill again.
That’s not to say Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have been complete buffoons- many people, including me, can point to good aspects of their leadership and character. But as a whole, the Post-Cold War presidents have been pale shadows of presidents past, in everything from overall policy achievements to strategic acumen to inspirational abilities. The institution of the Presidency has gone down a few pegs in respectability, even as public opinion has polarized across every dividing line imaginable. In this context- and a lot of pro-Trump West Coast Straussians have noted this, to their credit- Trump is merely the reaction of a disillusioned electoral bloc to the perceived failures of their elite, failures expressed most vividly in the Presidency. Trump doesn’t happen in a healthy polity that’s going in the right direction, so the argument goes.
So what we have, according to this analysis, is a negative feedback loop: we have a decadent political culture that produces and elevates less-than-great leaders, and less-than-great leaders worsen the decadence of our political culture. It spirals to the bottom regardless of which party controls the White House, and after the division and relative incompetence of the Obama years, the pendulum has swung to the right-wing populism of Donald Trump. The right-wing populism of Trump’s excesses will likely result in a 2020 or 2024 pendulum swing back to the elite far left, depending on a host of factors. All this in an increasingly imbalanced constitutional system which steadily concentrates more and more political and administrative power in- you guessed it- the Presidency.
Can this cycle be stopped?
I don’t know- the question of “social physics” vs. Great Man theory, and the answer that inevitably lies unseen somewhere in the middle, is unanswerable, but our answers to it are critical to how we’ll decide to act. And if, like me, you believe great leaders can make a dent in the historical process even if they can’t change the currents of history, you might have some futile hope in whichever particular dog you have in this fight.
THE QUALITIES OF MEN
“Though there never was a golden age where all men were noble and wise,” I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that we live in an age of distinct public debauchery and ineptitude. The daily sewage spewing from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account is certainly a proof of this, as is the generally somewhat hollow nature of contemporary political life (fraught though it is with existential questions.) While I have no doubt that individuals going into politics usually have all the best reasons, and are probably very dedicated and honest people trying to stick to their ideals, the simple fact of the matter is that our system does not place a particular premium on qualities like character, devotion, disinterestedness, unity, unselfish service, and other idealistic Boy Scout things that make consultants laugh and sneer. David Brooks lamented the decline of magnanimity in our leaders, and noted that in the entire Trump administration, only the generals seem to display manliness in the classic Periclean sense. That sounds right to me. (This is not the place to examine the complex interweavings of virtue, values, institutions, interests, and human nature, but rest assured it’s a fascinating can of worms.) There’s a very real reason Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt are the presidents many Americans yearn for nostalgically, rather than, say, Warren G. Harding or Richard Nixon.
It’s not just character, though. There’s a newfound competence problem with our leaders as well. In an interview, Craig Smith, President Gerald Ford’s speechwriter, suggested to me that Presidents with decades of prior experience in public life- Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, H.W. Bush- tend to be more responsible and competent than those with less experience. Compare those presidents, particularly in their foreign policies, with their Post-Cold War successors Bill Clinton (two-term Governor of Arkansas,) George W. Bush (one-term Governor of Texas,) and Barack Obama (one-term Senator from Illinois.) I need not examine Trump’s nonexistent prior public life. It seems to me that qualification is a qualification for the Presidency and for most other high offices, and that qualification is for whatever reason in dearth these days.
There are a lot of reasons for and aspects of this decline in character and competence, institutional and cultural and sociological in nature. There’s the shifting moral paradigms of the American cultural and political elite. There’s the series of well-intentioned reforms, starting after Watergate and going through the 90s, that unwittingly disempowered practical politicians and placed power in the hands of the ideologues who control for-profit media. There’s the declines in social capital and social trust so many astute social scientists have been observing for decades.
Regardless of the long-term problems, there is at least one short-term solution that can have some long-term effects. That solution, trite though it is to say, is good leadership- at a community level, at a city level, at a state level, at a Congressional level, and most importantly at the national level in the Presidency. Remember that Gerald Ford did much to heal the country after the fall of Nixon. For better or for worse, American politics revolves around the Presidency like the planets around the sun, and the caliber of person who assumes that office bodes highly, well or ill, for the destiny of the republic. Leadership does matter for politics, and character and competence- or at the very, very least, the perception of character and competence- matters for leadership.
So basically: we need to elect a President and Vice-President who the public, broadly defined as both the elites and the voting masses, believes exemplifies character and competence in service to the country. In my reading, there’s a trifecta of requirements for that-
-A strong record in public service;
-The appearance of a relative outsider uncorrupted by politics;
-A simultaneously no-nonsense yet let’s-work-together temperament.
The first two requirements seem paradoxical and, for the most part, are. To serve the public you usually need to serve in government; but to serve in government you earn the unsavory distinction of being a member of “the Establishment.”
There’s one exception, though- military service. If the polls are to be trusted, the United States Armed Forces are just about the last highly-trusted big institution in America these days, for a multitude of reasons- the perception of purity of sacrifice and of disinterested, nonpartisan service to the public are probably the biggest.
So- the easiest way to find this kind of public servant is to find a distinguished veteran of the United States Armed Forces. I don’t know if mass psychological studies have been done on veterans, but I would not be surprised if general trends were observed suggesting a kind of cooperative pragmatism coupled with individual independence among veterans in politics. (AEI’s Rebecca Burgess has done some work on these kinds of issues, and has written some great pieces on them.) Find any veteran at all who’s even a little bit less combative than Douglas MacArthur, and you have the foundations of a compelling candidate.
Intelligence would be nice, as well- so perhaps pick someone who has an advanced degree or multiple fellowships under their belt, someone who’s maybe written some books- and it would be nice if this person had relatively moderate views as well, and a history of reaching across the aisle like Americans claim they want their politicians to do.
And by a stroke of luck or an act of the divinity, there happen to be two elected officials rising in prominence in this country who fit that description to a “T.”
It’s as though someone wrote a fanfiction about the kinds of public servants America needs and the gods, looking with sympathy upon we mortals, made it happen. Governor Eric Greitens of Missouri and Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, by their “resume” virtues at least, would make a formidable team.
Eric Greitens is pretty much Theodore Roosevelt. Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow in the George W. Bush administration, author of multiple books, humanitarian, Navy SEAL with tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia under his belt, and founder of a notable veterans charity, the man’s a legend. He was formerly a Democrat and has listed Harry Truman as his favorite President, though he switched registration to Republican before he entered politics. Greitens was elected Governor of Missouri in 2016, running on an anti-corruption platform, and despite pursuing unpopular policies, appears to remain popular among his constituency. Before he was elected he was continuously cited as a future presidential candidate, and it’s not hard to imagine a Greitens 2020 campaign. I need not go on- just read his interview with Brett McKay at The Art of Manliness to get an idea of this man’s intellect and prowess.
Seth Moulton is also pretty much Theodore Roosevelt. An attendee of Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University, he was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps upon graduation and served in some of the fiercest fighting in the early years of the Iraq War. He ultimately would serve four tours in Iraq, and spent the last two working directly for General David Petraeus. He apparently is loved by many generals in both the Army and the Marine Corps, the same generals who’re reining in the excesses of President Trump right now. He’ll be publishing a book next year. He ran for Congress in his home state of Massachusetts in 2014 and has been serving since then; he is a Democrat with no clear affiliations with either the progressive wing or the centrist wings of the party. But in a party that is increasingly less and less identified with “Americanism” and classic patriotism, military veterans-turned-Democratic elected officials hold a lot of power to recast the Democratic Party’s image. Politico published a glowing profile of Congressman Moulton recently, suggesting he’s in line for the Presidency as well; I need not go on.
Individually, these two men will go on to do great things in politics. It is hard to see them working together for multiple reasons, including, I would presume, probably overweening ambitions and egos that would be as scorpions in a bottle if put too close together. There’s also a partisan and even regional-cultural divide- Greitens is a populist Republican from the Midwest and Moulton is a progressive Democrat from the Northeast. But just imagine all the great things that would flow from a Greitens-Moulton presidential ticket in 2020…
First off, we’ve had a whole quarter-century now of relative incompetence and boringness in the Presidency. No distinguished public servants, not even any veterans of the military, intelligence, or diplomatic communities. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump are neither Roosevelts nor Churchills. Greitens and Moulton, by contrast, have both had distinguished and worldly military careers, as well as fantastic academic credentials.
Second off, it would be a bipartisan, trans-ideological, multi-regional ticket. Greitens is a Republican and Moulton is a Democrat. Greitens leans far to the right, Moulton somewhat to the left. Greitens hails from Trumpistan, Moulton from Clintonistan. Stranger presidential tickets have been formed; this one would unite the regions that don’t usually get along with each other, and could be a formidable, if unlikely, electoral coalition. And moreover- Americans these days say they want something vaguely called bipartisanship (even while calling for the destruction of their enemies or at least the obstruction of their healthcare or immigration proposals. Whatever.) Why not give them true bipartisanship in a truly bipartisan ticket populated by two men who, ostensibly and outwardly at least, value public service?
Third, the character aspect. The writings of Greitens and Moulton ringer richer than the writings of most politicians who prattle on about service and patriotism, because Greitens and Moulton spent the earlier parts of their careers becoming embodiments of service to country. There have been plenty of objections to the sincerity of either Greitens or Moulton- both have been accused of power-hunger and unfathomable ambitions, and the accompanying will to destroy that inevitably comes with the will to power- but outwardly at the very least, they display a kind of dedication to country that no mere political hack can imitate, no matter how hard they try. It shouldn’t be underestimated how important this aspect of image is to political capital.
It might be objected that neither has had sufficient political experience to assume the Presidency or Vice-Presidency, a critique with which I sympathize. But- Donald Trump is President of the United States with no prior public service under his belt. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all came in with minimal public life experience as well. Experience just doesn’t matter much in presidential politics these days, and is no longer the public qualifier it once was. Might as well have competent, all-American heroes as our unqualified presidents.
There might be a further objection that the presence of two veterans in the White House and the Naval Observatory (that’s the Vice-President’s house, for those who didn’t know!) would be indicative of or otherwise lead to some kind of military rule of sorts. The intelligent bearers of this critique would point not to third world autocracies rift with coups, but to the waning years of the Roman Republic, when military veterans like Sulla and Marius usurped the power of the Senate and eventually paved the way for the Triumvirate, Caesar, and the rise of the Empire. I don’t have a real answer to this critique, since the ambitious men of today are certainly not unlike the ambitious men of Rome.
That said, perhaps we are at a phase in our national history- not unlike the age of the Roosevelts, or perhaps the Lincoln Presidency- when strong and enlightened leadership must assume the unprecedented power of the presidency to stabilize the liberal, constitutional order into something functional again. Better disciplined and patriotic veterans than, say, Kid Rock.
Anyhow, this isn’t going to happen. Governor Greitens and Congressman Moulton aren’t about to cross party lines and save the country. That’s not how the world works.
Nonetheless, we can open some important conversations that aren’t really being had publicly right now- conversations about the role of character formation in education, broadly defined; conversations about how to get more qualified and dutiful people into public office and high office; conversations about what kind of leaders can actually unite the country by representing timeless principles, rather than merely the kind of leaders who suit our preferences and consciences.
I wish the best to Governor Greitens and Congressman Moulton in their forthcoming careers, especially if and when they each run for President of the United States. We’ll see what happens with them, and with the country.