Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Perception and reality

On the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, campaign guru Karl Rove provided an interesting insight into his strategic reality.  “Mr. Romney,” he wrote of the candidate he backs, “needs to be perceived on Election Day as the man with a plan.”  A secret plan is even better.

President Richard Nixon touted a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War during his bid for a second term. Unfortunately, what he really had was a campaign ploy and not a plan, and the ploy meant very little as the end of the war played out with television images of Vietnamese who had befriended us hanging from the skids of our last helicopter rising from the roof of the U.S. embassy.

Continuing this secret plan tradition, the Romney-Ryan ticket claims to have a secret plan to turn the country’s job market around quickly. The plan involves spending more while taxing less, but how that magic might actually happen is the secret part, with details to follow the election. 

President Obama has a semi-plan. He wants to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more community college slots so people can get trained for jobs going unfilled now. He also wants to make sure college tuition is kept low for young people. Exactly how he expects to turn desires into reality remains unclear. Obama does seem more open than Romney to answering wonky detail policy questions. Since such openness can lead to the press and the public rudely asking for specifics about the plan, including how it will be paid for, secret plans do seem an easier campaign strategy.

Obviously, you cannot plan for everything. When 9/11 occurred, President Bush’s plan for the day was to spend a few happy moments reading to children in the midst of a simple public-relations trip. In an instant, with the whispered words of an aide, those plans disappeared and he had to figure out how to steady a nation rocked by an attack that changed everything. With the world two days from a complete financial collapse, then-candidate Obama had to decide to support a plan the details of which he had not been a full part of. Staving off the catastrophe took real thoughtful plans constructed under pressure, but not in secret.

A president will again be sworn in next January. It is critically important that when the inevitable moment of crisis comes, whether it is Iran vs. Israel or an act of foreign or domestic terrorism or nature run amok, we will have someone who has a plan, not just the perception of a plan and advisors who, unlike Karl Rove, know the difference.

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