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The allure of ‘strong and wrong’

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‘Strong and wrong beats weak and right’ — that was former President Bill Clinton’s shrewd analysis 20 years ago of the Democrats’ failure to make gains in the first midterm election of the George W. Bush administration. The year was 2002, and Bush was still polling relatively high a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

A leader with either excessive strength or excessive weakness can be a danger to democracy. Right now, many Americans are troubled by President Biden’s perceived weakness. Last month, the Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll asked how well the word “strong leader” describes President Biden. Only 25 percent said “extremely well” or “very well.” Almost half said “not very well” or “not well at all.” 

In January, the Gallup poll asked people whether they thought Biden could be called “a strong and decisive leader;” 37 percent said “yes,” down nearly 10 points from the 2020 campaign. An average of 54 percent called Donald Trump “strong and decisive” during his presidency. According to Gallup, “Leadership was consistently rated as Trump’s strongest quality throughout his term.”

If the 2024 presidential race turns out to be a rematch between Biden and Trump, it will be a contest between two currently unpopular figures (unpopular for different reasons). In the AP-NORC poll, 50 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of Biden and 63 percent don’t like Trump. Asked whether they would like to see each man run for president again, only 28 percent said “yes” for Biden and 27 percent said “yes” for Trump. 

A year ago, Statista found that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were the only two presidents since John F. Kennedy that most Americans rate “above average” or “outstanding.”

At the moment, there does not appear to be another Reagan or Obama out there.

The true test of democracy is not electing a leader. The true test is unelecting a leader — turning a government out of office, peacefully, if it has lost the confidence of the people. The U.S. has passed that test for over 200 years. We came closest to failure in 2020 when Trump refused to accept defeat and tried to overturn the result of the election.

He’s still trying. 

And he is willing to defy the law and the Constitution to do it. The worst label in Trump’s vocabulary is “loser.” He stubbornly refuses to accept it. Recent revelations of Trump’s desperate efforts to hold on to power show the danger posed by over-reliance on “strength.” It can lead to bullying.

We now know that President Trump tried to persuade the military, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and state and local officials to seize voting machines because of unfounded suspicions of voter fraud. They all refused, claiming they lacked the authority to intervene in an election. 

Last year, President Trump was impeached, though not convicted, for inciting violent protesters to attack Congress. The attack resulted in five deaths, four suicides and more than 100 Americans injured. The Republican National Committee recently voted to label the insurrectionists “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

Trump expected Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election by refusing to accept the electoral vote count when he was presiding over the Senate. But Pence claimed a primary loyalty to the Constitution.

“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said recently. “I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and [current Vice President] Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”

What are the chances that, if Trump is nominated in 2024, he will keep Pence on the ticket? 

A weak president presents a different danger. One of the key lessons of international politics is this: Weakness invites aggression. The rule also applies to domestic politics. A president who is seen as weak invites defiance, even from members of his own political party. Other politicians need to understand that they cannot defy the president with impunity.

President Truman earned criticism, but also respect, when he fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War. President Kennedy proved his toughness when he faced down the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis. President Reagan did it by breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike.

The Ukraine crisis poses both a threat and an opportunity for Biden. If Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and turns it into a satellite state, Biden will look weak and ineffectual, just as Jimmy Carter did during the Iran hostage crisis.

It’s not just Biden’s personal weakness that invites Russian aggression. The United States suffered a humiliating defeat when we withdrew from Afghanistan last year and the Taliban government that the U.S. overthrew 20 years ago returned to power. Very few Americans support the idea of sending U.S. troops to fight and die to save Ukraine — not even hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who said in the Senate, “Under no circumstances should we send our sons and daughters to die to defend Ukraine from Russia.”

That is true even though Russia is one of the few issues that both parties agree on. In this month’s Morning Consult poll, 61 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans called Russia “an enemy of the United States.”

President Biden has a lot riding on what Vladimir Putin decides to do. So does the government of every NATO country. That’s exactly why NATO was founded in 1949 — to deter Russian aggression in Europe. President Biden is threatening severe sanctions on Russia — and on Putin himself — if Russia invades Ukraine. But the diplomatic initiative aimed at preventing a European war is being seized by French President Emmanuel Macron. And guess what? Macron is facing a difficult re-election campaign two months from now.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2022 midterm elections Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mike Pence opinion polling Perception presidential job approval ratings Presidents of the United States Ted Cruz trumpism Vladimir Putin Voter poll

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