Friday, October 24, 2008

Intelligence - Part V

I may be at the end of the series.

As I move on to a discussion of the presidential candidates, this is a good place to point out that people who actually make individual decisions that affect others are likely better at this than the rest of us, or they would have long since failed and been removed. People instinctively know this, which is why we have long favored governors over senators in presidential elections. In theory, senators know the subject matter of governance better than anyone (even journalists!), but seldom have the decision making experience of governors. I never fully bought that argument until writing this sentence. I thought it only a minor advantage. Similarly, Barack Obama has offered the running of his own campaign as an example of executive experience. I have found that circular and weak until writing this series. But a political campaign does require constant adjustment, an ability to mitigate the effects of bad luck and jump on good luck opportunities. Obama does seem to have adjusted well in the campaign. That does tell us something.

Joe Biden has shown little ability to adjust to changing circumstances or question his own wisdom. I find nothing of interest more to say.

I am tempted to the stereotype that the younger candidates will be the more adaptable, but I doubt it holds generally. Palin has changed course, adapting to the opportunities that present themselves. She seems to have started more as a religious reformer, redirected that to anti-corruption, with a strong thread of economic freedom throughout. She has adjusted quickly to the new role of being national inspirer rather than local decision-maker. In that change, however, she has been mostly following directions, taking other people’s word for what adjustments must be made. That’s not a bad thing – seeking advice when you don’t know the ground is certainly wise – but it isn’t the same thing as independently recognising a need for change and formulating a plan.

Obama, as I mentioned, has made adjustments on the fly these eighteen months. Even if that comes primarily from his advisors he still deserves the credit – he hired them. We have not seen what Obama would do if faced with dramatic changes, but we seldom get to observe that in anyone before electing them. I am sidestepping the issue of flip-flops on all candidates here. Those are adjustments, but are so confounded by the political calculations around them that we cannot tell whether the candidate is making a reality adjustment or a campaign adjustment. We are giving partial credit for adjusting at all. Barack has also made personal changes, not only giving up drugs and deciding to be a real student, but deciding that community organising wasn’t creating the societal changes he hoped for and going into electoral politics. There are some indicators of adaptability here.

McCain is a more mixed picture. Advocating for the surge, the biggest policy rethinking of the decade to date, is his calling card. It worked. Another big-ticket item was his campaign finance reform, which didn’t. In both cases, he soldiered on in the face of criticsm and was willing to go against prevailing wisdom. We’re not grading on success but on adaptability here, remember. He otherwise tends to gravitate to pretty typical solutions. OTOH, he was willing to go well outside the box in his campaign, considering Lieberman for a fusion ticket and then settling on Palin. He adjusted to being a POW, but only slowly to being back in civilian life. He adjusted to being a Senator in the minority party but didn’t do as well with his party in the majority. I would say that he adjusts, but slowly.

The ranking would be Obama slightly ahead of Palin and McCain, with all three showing different types of adaptability. Biden is not even submitted for ranking.

As I'm really guessing here, I encourage other data I hadn't considered.


Ben Wyman said...

Ultimately, Obama's decision to offer his campaign as his example of leadership is a very wise one - certainly it's aggravating and cyclical, but if his campaign had been poorly run, he would have been out of the race anyway. He's a candidate of no experience, and if his campaign had shown that, he would've disappeared out of our national consciousness immediately.

Instead, by using his campaign as his example of leadership, every time he made a wise move during the campaign - and he has made a great many - the viewer says "y'know, maybe he'll be fine after all." So his small decisions end up being weighed equally in a voter's mind with McCain's larger qualities, like his military service or years as a Senator. When we size it up from a distance, it seems like nonsense: "Obama's decision to run female-oriented commercials during the Palin Saturday Night Live show was a great one, but does it compare to showing leadership while a POW in Vietnam...? Hmm." But we're not sizing it up from a distance, we're sizing it up on the fly.

Obama wants to be a candidate that we don't really know anything about but think that we know everything about, which is why he wants the whole campaign to just be about the campaign. He's doing a really good job of it.

Donna B. said...

And... there's little evidence that Obama is as intelligent and "intellectual" as he is portrayed.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Donna B, I have said that many times, and it is worth keeping in mind, because most of what people use as evidence of that is weak. However, as one of the people I had this argument with pointed out, graduating in the top 10% of your class at Harvard Law does give you some claim on that sort of intelligence. I think that's fair. I had estimated all four candidates at about 1SD above average in IQ. But looking into it, I think I'm going higher than that with McCain, and maybe higher still with Obama. 5-10 points each.

Anonymous said...

Top 10%? I thought we were still waiting to see his transcripts?

All we know about his years at Columbia is that he did not graduate with honors.