In Which Chris Spills an Inkwell onto a Rorschach Diagram Right as We’re About to Make Some Sense of It

Chris has offered up an intriguing comparison in our ongoing back-and-forth about Pope Francis’ public (and private) statements and the extent to which one can use them to infer specifics about his agenda. In response to my suggestion that his admiration for the new pontiff’s rhetorical style has less to do with that style per se and more to do with his apparent willingness to entertain changes that Chris favors (and that I favor as well), he wrote that it is not so much Francis’ words as his emphasis on transparency and openness that he finds so attractive.

I had been critical of Chris for praising Francis’ “frank,” “straightforward” and “no-nonsense” oratory because I didn’t think that’s what he was really praising. I pointed out that he would probably be dismayed if Francis started to argue in a “frank and straightforward” manner that gay prelates needed to be rooted out of the priesthood. And he concurred, explaining that his example involving the pope’s “gay lobby” comment was intended to illustrate his willingness to be open about problems in the Vatican rather than his specific thoughts about homosexual cabals as such.

Setting aside the fact that there are some obvious problems with using this particular remark as evidence that Francis has a strong desire to subject the inner workings of the Curia to a greater level of public scrutiny – namely, the fact that it was not intended to be a public statement, and may not ever have been uttered in the first place – I saw that maybe I had been reading his original argument incorrectly. Fair enough. Plus, Chris agreed that different factions see what they want in Francis, which is what I had originally been arguing with my whole Rorschach analogy. So it seemed that we were on the same page.

And then he compared the pope to Chris Christie.

Far from allowing us to “glean a little more insight to why Francis has been so popular across such broad constituencies,” I think the analogy just serves to validate my original point: people do not perceive “bluntness” in their leaders as an intrinsic virtue. Rather, they are drawn to blunt rhetoric insofar as it is deployed on behalf of causes and arguments with which they are already sympathetic.

Consider what Chris writes about New Jersey’s YouTube sensation of a governor:

Christie uses more conversational language and invokes sharp attacks on his opponents, forcefully calling out those who disagree with him.  New Jersey politics has never been a game for the faint of heart, but Christie’s often shockingly straightforward style has made him stand out like few governors in the recent past.

Very true. But as he then acknowledges, this is insufficient as an explanation of Christie’s stratospheric approval ratings:

Forceful rhetoric only gets you so far in engendering support, but applying it in a heartfelt style across party lines in order to get the most effective state aid will boost your approval ratings like nothing else.  Christie’s interest in operating along bipartisan lines, even if only on a couple of issues or events, is perceived by many as a refreshing stance in a sea of bitter partisanship in government of all levels.

Aha! So it’s not just that he’s “shockingly straightforward,” but that he’s shockingly straightforward in his attempts to bridge acrimonious political divides, something everybody but campaign strategists and talk radio shills can get behind. What would happen if he were shockingly straightforward in his zeal to advance more controversial measures?

As it happens, we already have some sense of how to answer this question. Amid all the talk about Christie considering a run for president in 2016 and about how he may be poised to crush his little-known Democratic opponent this November by a double-digit margin, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there was a time when Christie was far less popular. Interestingly enough, this coincided with high-profile fights with the legislature over unpopular cuts to education and social services in the state budget. Was Christie insufficiently blunt during these fights? Was it his reticence to lay out his vision clearly and forcefully that did him in, rather than the substance of the proposals he was plugging at the time?

Alas, no. Christie’s unfiltered persona is not a recent innovation, nor does it represent a political course correction. It was not effected in response to advice from his aides that he wasn’t plainspoken enough, or poll data showing that voters saw him as a timid waffler. His bluntness was on full display during the budget showdowns in question, so I think we have to conclude that this cannot account for his apparent glide path to reelection. Rather, it seems to be just reflective of who he is: a typical New Jerseyan. (Note: This is a joke. RM does not endorse Jersey stereotypes, and might even serve to combat them. We would rather engage our opponents in dialogue than see them whacked.)

To me, Chris’ argument about the provenance of Francis’ and Christie’s popularity is a twist on what Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein has dubbed the “glowing briefcase” theory of the presidency. According to this theory, the lack of legislative progress in the United States in recent years is directly linked to the failure of the president to show sufficient “leadership.” In other words, it only appears that the enormous disagreements between the two parties on issues of taxes, spending, job creation, healthcare, energy policy and more are hopelessly intractable. Rather, there are obvious, centrist solutions floating around that just need to be seized upon by the chief executive and sold to the public (and to Congress) with all the force of the bully pulpit.

This conceit understandably has appeal to people who believe in seeking compromise and middle ground rather than berating one’s enemies, and so it’s especially distressing for someone like me to have to admit that it has in fact been refuted by the past several years of American politics. When President Obama tries to argue forcefully for change, he is portrayed by his opponents as single-minded and inflexible. When he reaches out, he is said to be weak. When he tries to champion policies that were formulated by conservatives and once seen as potential bipartisan compromises, he is called a socialist. Forceful argument, civil engagement, and generous compromise are all possible forms of leadership, right? In the mind of the public and, to a much greater extent, among the members of the chattering classes, they are – but only if they work.

The fact is that the glowing briefcase theory gets it precisely backwards: it is not that there are deep divides in our political culture because of a dearth of presidential leadership, but that presidential leadership is ineffective because of those deep divides. When Obama travels the country trying to whip up support for his agenda, his public appearances are liable to embolden his enemies rather than to soften their opposition. For some members of Congress, having a poor working relationship with the president is a badge of honor.

Rhetorical style is not totally irrelevant to the question of what makes for effective leadership. Some people are better-equipped to manage complex organizations and to communicate their ideas than others. That said, it is generally the case that pundits, commentators, and the public, gifted with the benefits of hindsight, ascribe too much credit to the rhetoric of their leaders when they succeed and too much blame to it when they fail, especially in contexts in which the power of those leaders to act unilaterally is limited and change tends to be driven by other actors (e.g. the Catholic Church, the constitutional system of government in the United States, etc.). Successful rhetoric is seen as inspirational and powerful, while unsuccessful rhetoric is dismissed as professorial bloviation. More to the point, if leaders are “blunt” or “direct” on occasions when they happen to succeed, then bluntness and directness themselves come to be lionized.

I worry that some of the early enthusiasm about Pope Francis has led to unrealistic expectations about his ability to heal the divisions in the Church. I also worry that over time, should Francis fail to deal with the problems of corruption in the Vatican and to burnish the tarnished public image of the Church, his oratorical style will come to be judged much more harshly than it has been thus far. No longer will it be a “most welcome approach to the papacy,” as Chris puts it, but a feeble substitute for action.

There’s certainly no shortage of juicy topics that we’d like to discuss in future essays here at RM, but I think it would be worth contemplating further the ways in which a person’s political and ideological orientations color the way that their other traits can come to be seen by their allies and foes. For example, supporters of Obama’s foreign policy, with its general reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts, may see his decisions as stemming from a deep appreciation for the difficult ethical calculus that goes along with authorizing military actions. His opponents, on the other hand, may see only cowardice and contemptible vacillation. This is understandable, but my point is that this simple agreement or disagreement can lead to something else. Obama’s stances may come to be seen as revealing not only the results of a process of prudential judgment, but important aspects of his character or personality as well.

One final note: I argued in the piece that kicked off this discussion that, while talk of a Vatican III was baseless, Francis is probably on the cusp of doing something. It ought to be clear by now that I’m hesitant to try to define what that “something” might be, but am I falling into the same trap in which I think Chris has been ensnared by even assuming that? Could my own desire to see bold action from a new pope be causing me to read too much into simple acts like the changing of personnel? After all, merely hiring some new Vatican bureaucrats is not the same thing as “reform.”

I don’t think so. There are plenty of objective indications that this is not going to be a status quo papacy. Talk of the “gay lobby” doesn’t tell us much, but watching Francis assemble a cabinet of eight cardinals to “advise him in the government of the universal church” and “to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia” (the document that outlines the organizational structure of the Vatican) certainly does. John Allen, Jr. observes that the first mandate is so broad that “there’s almost nothing that falls outside its purview… this isn’t a blue-ribbon commission assembled to handle a single task.”

I agree with Chris that Pope Francis has managed to appeal to a wide variety of constituencies both within and without the Catholic Church, but I do not think this is because of his “bluntness.” I think it is because his gestures of humility, like taking up residence in the Vatican guesthouse or washing the feet of women and Muslims, have convinced people that he is a good and holy man, and not a career-minded hierarch. To borrow one of his own phrases, he does not have the “psychology of a prince.” Once he starts making more specific decisions about church governance, I have no doubt that he will start to attract more controversy. I would hope that he does not attract so much controversy that it becomes crippling for his papacy – I mentioned once before that I hope he can steer clear of another Regensburg debacle – but that it will come seems inevitable.

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