The Dems need some sons-of-bitches.
I’ve been mulling this ever since the presidents-are-assholes post (which, honestly, was the wrong word to use. I was thinking arrogant asshole when I wrote asshole, but since asshole is now more associated with thoughtlessness and jerkish behavior than an annoying overflow of self-confidence, I should have pulled another term out of the ol’ noggin. Prick, perhaps: presidents-are-pricks. Yes, that works, doesn’t it? And it has a minor alliterative bit going for it as well.). . . and, um, yeah.
Okay, sons-of-bitches. Since US presidents have to appeal to citizens, there are limits as to how ruthless they may appear to be. I’m of the opinion that to become president you have to be one of the most ruthless people on the planet, but while you can—must—offer flashes of ruthlessness, you cannot be only ruthless.
Hence the need for sons-of-bitches.
Machiavelli is, unsurprisingly, my touchstone for this. Not everything he advises for would-be princes holds up in a democratic system, but even back in the day he recognized the value of a good hatchet man:
When he [Cesare Borgia] took Romagna, . . . the province was a prey to robbery, assaults, and every kind of disorder. He, therefore, judged it necessary to give them a good government in order to make them peaceful and obedient to his rule. For this purpose he appointed Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, to whom he gave the fullest authority. This man, in a short time, was highly successful in rendering the country orderly and united, whereupon the duke, not deeming such excessive authority expedient, lest it should become hateful, appoint a civil court of justice in the centre of the province. . . .
Of course, Borgia was himself a son-of-a-bitch:
And as he knew the harshness of the past had engendered some amount of hatred, in order to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but through the harsh disposition of his minister [de Orco]. And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and placed one morning in the public square at Cesena with a piece of wood and blood-stained knife by his side. The ferocity of this spectacle caused the people both satisfaction and amazement.
(My favorite part of this anecdote? He ends by saying “But to return where we left off.”)
No, I don’t recommend public body-choppings, but Machiavelli’s basic admonition holds:
a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which make him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.
Note that such faithlessness has less to do with the people than with other rulers and political actors.
Not that he has much respect for the people:
to possess [virtue] and always observe them is dangerous, but to appear to possess them is useful. Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities. . . .
The people want to be well-ruled and to think well of those who rule them, so if you have to be faithless to maintain good order and lie about such faithlessness to maintain your reputation, well, that’s what effective leadership requires.
Given my antipathy toward moral consequentialism—the ends justify the means—you’d think I’d be appalled by Machiavelli, who is a consequentialist par excellence. And yet I am not, because the morality (if you will) of politics is not that of ethics; what is required for good governance of a state is distinct from that of good governance of a soul.
Anyway, the president-as-son-of-a-bitch wouldn’t work in contemporary American politics, not just because we want—Odin forbid—a “likable” president, but because he almost certainly couldn’t conceal his bad acts. No fingerprints, and all that.
Consider Nixon, a son-of-a-bitch if there ever was one, who was nonetheless dwarfed in his SOB-ness by his advisers. He could have survived Watergate had he been able to offload the responsibility on the execrable pack of hounds around him, but he couldn’t keep his beetle-brow out of it.
Compare that to Reagan. Does anyone truly believe that he knew nothing about the arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra clusterfuck? Sure, he was nodding off by the end of his term, but he wasn’t completely out of it when his henchmen were sending cakes to the ayatollah and offloading weapons to a scrum of fascists and opportunists camped in the hills of Nicaragua. His SOBs were colossally delusional, but they at least kept their duke out of it.
This is all getting away from me, isn’t it? “But to return where we left off.”
The Democrats need some sons-of-bitches because they are dealing with an opposition which leadership is itself too cowed to beat back the howling horde of feral paranoiacs which have overrun their party. The Dems—the Democratic president—needs their/his own pack of hounds (execrable or not) who are not only willing but positively gleeful at the thought of handcuffing the Republican party to the dead weight of the nutters and conspiracists, the young-Earthers and old birthers, the contraceptive-grabbers and ammo-clingers, and dragging the whole lot of them into the metaphorical sea. Only then will those Republicans who retain some faint memory of the necessity of good governance be scared into gnawing off their arms to preserve themselves and prevent their entire party from drowning in a roiling mass of incoherence and stupidity.
There’s another reason besides likability and deniability to cultivate some SOBs: punishing the GOP will take time and real effort, and the president has his own shit to do. I always thought Rahm Emmanuel was overrated as an SOB—swearing a lot is no substitute for a well-cultivated ruthlessness—and while Anthony Weiner was a fine SOB in his own right, he had his own liabilities (besides the obvious ones) within his own caucus, and, in any case, couldn’t do it all by himself.
There are dangers to SOBs, of course, chief among them running off their leashes—which is why the president must himself retain his own ruthless streak and be willing either to yank them back into line or put ’em (metaphorically) down.
But he must appear sincerely humane in doing so.