Sorry, Jeb, the Race Is Wide Open Democrats may be ready for Hillary, but nothing is inevitable for the GOP.

Thoughts on the 2016 primaries:

No one expects anything from the Democrats. They will back, accept or acquiesce in a coronation. This will not be called passive but disciplined. But when you think about it—one of our two major parties, in a time of considerable national peril, will settle its presidential nomination without vigorous debate—it is weird and disturbing.

Republicans are the action, and will draw all the lightning. A read on where the base—huge, broad and varied, including but not limited to attendees of this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference—is:

Republican CandidatesRepublicans this year are not looking for Reagan. They’re looking for Churchill. They’re looking for the guy who knows the war is already here, not the guy who knows the war can be averted if we defeat the guys who would wage it. What is “the war”? Everything from scarily sluggish economic growth to long-term liabilities and deficits; from the melting away of the post-World-War-II order to the Mideast to domestic terrorism. Every four years there is frustration and argument; this year there is urgency.

What the Republican Party needs in a presidential candidate is not a centrist who can make the sale to conservatives in the primaries; it is a conservative who can win over centrists in the general election. That means the Republican nominee should be a man or woman who can redefine conservative thinking for current circumstances and produce policies that centrists and independents will find worthy of consideration.

Jeb Bush is said by some and treated by many as the front-runner, the one to beat. I don’t see it. In fact I think he’s making a poor impression.

It’s a commonplace to say nobody’s watching this early. But some people are, especially activists in the base and the mainstream media, which is picking up impressions that will harden into widespread clichés. What are they seeing?

Mr. Bush is spending much of his time in The Rooms—offices and conference rooms—with millionaires and billionaires. Money in politics is very important, and Mr. Bush makes a great impression on the denizens of The Rooms. He speaks their language. They like his experience, the fluency with which he speaks of domestic policy. Here his family name helps him; they know he is politically vetted, a successful former governor, is respectful of the imperatives of business, and is bottom-line sane.

It is going so well that Patrick O’Connor of the Journal reported this week the Bush team is asking fundraisers who want to join the campaign’s top tier to collect $500,000 by the end of March. But veteran bundlers expect it will cost more “to reach the inner circle . . . because deep-pocketed donors have been so eager to write big checks.”

All this reflects a deliberate allocating of the candidate’s time. The Bush campaign will vacuum up money now and be interesting and compelling later. They’re trying to force rivals out of the race by picking up their potential donors and leaving nothing but crumbs.

Mr. Bush’s operation is also, according to the New York Times, muscling party strategists and policy specialists to advise only him and no one else. Again a message is sent: Be with us now or we’ll remember later. It sounds tough and Clintonian. Actually it looks less like a sales pitch than a hostile takeover.

There’s something tentative and joyless in Mr. Bush’s public presentations. He isn’t mixing it up with voters or wading into the crowd. So far he is not good at the podium. His recent foreign-policy speech was both bland and jangly, and its one memorable statement—“I am my own man”—was the kind of thing a candidate shouldn’t have to say.

What is most missing so far is a fierce sense of engagement, a passionate desire to lead America out of the morass, a fiery—or Churchillian—certainty that he is the man for the moment. In its place we see a softer, wanner I’m smart, accomplished, know policy, and it’s my turn.

I am not sure Mr. Bush likes the base. If he doesn’t, it would explain some of his discomfort. I am wondering if he sees the base as a challenge, not a home, something he has to manage, not something he is of. He was perhaps referring to this in December when he said you have “to lose the primary to win the general.” Actually you have to win it, but to really succeed you have to show you share the base’s heart, that you understand its beginning points and align with it on essentials. When you disagree with it you address those issues among friends, and with confidence. You can’t cover up differences in a passive-aggressive way—at their feet when you really want to be at their throat.

A certain resistance to the idea of Mr. Bush is bubbling up among some journalists and intellectuals. In an arresting piece in the Atlantic, David Frum asked if he is the Republican Obama —essentially bicultural, interested in transforming a nation he finds lacking. “Both Jeb Bush and Barack Obama are men who have openly and publicly struggled with their ambivalence about their family inheritance. Both responded by leaving the place of their youth to create new identities for themselves: Barack Obama, as an organizer in the poor African-American neighborhoods of Chicago; Jeb Bush in Mexico, Venezuela, and at last in Cuban-influenced Miami. Both are men who have talked a great deal about the feeling of being ‘between two worlds,’ ” Mr. Obama in his books and Mr. Bush in his speeches. “Both chose wives who would more deeply connect them to their new chosen identity. Both derived from their new identity a sharp critique of their nation as it is. Both have built their campaign for president upon a deep commitment to fundamental transformation of their nation into what they believe it should be.”

Jim Geraghty of National Review writes of “considerable evidence that there’s a lot of Jeb-skepticism out there among conservatives.” Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard says Mr. Bush may be “cornering the market” on professional Republicans but asks: “What is the case for a Bush restoration, beyond the fact that it would make the professional GOP comfortable once again? Why should average Republican primary voters—the insurance salesmen and truck drivers, not pollsters and policy advisers—choose Jeb over Scott Walker, Chris Christie , Ted Cruz, or the dozen other potential nominees?”

These are respected voices read by many conservatives.

Finally, this week’s polls—yes, it’s early—offer Mr. Bush little comfort. A Quinnipiac poll in Iowa has him coming in fifth, behind Mr. Walker, Rand Paul , Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee . Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted the really bad news for Mr. Bush is that he was well known among respondents “and not all that well liked”—41% favorable to 40% unfavorable. A national survey from Public Policy Polling shows Mr. Walker in the lead at 25%, with Mr. Carson at 18%, and Mr. Bush in third place with 17%.

The road is long. Maybe Jeb Bush will succeed. But no one should bow to his inevitability. He doesn’t have a better chance with Republican voters than some other possible candidates, and may have less.

An Administration Adrift on Denial Why won’t the president think clearly about the nature of the Islamic State?

Great essays tell big truths. A deeply reported piece in next month’s Atlantic magazine does precisely that, and in a way devastating to the Obama administration’s thinking on ISIS.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by contributing editor Graeme Wood, is going to change the debate. (It ought to become a book.)

Mr. Wood describes a dynamic, savage and so far successful organization whose members mean business. Their mettle should not be doubted. ISIS controls an area larger than the United Kingdom and intends to restore, and expand, the caliphate. Mr. Wood interviewed Anjem Choudary of the banned London-based Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, who characterized ISIS’ laws of war as policies of mercy, not brutality. “He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies,” Mr. Wood writes, “because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.”

IsisISIS has allure: Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are believed to have joined. The organization is clear in its objectives: “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change . . . that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world. . . . The Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.”

The scale of the savagery is difficult to comprehend and not precisely known. Regional social media posts “suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks.” Most, not all, of the victims are Muslims.

The West, Mr. Wood argues, has been misled “by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. . . . The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers,” drawn largely from the disaffected. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” Its actions reflect “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bring about the apocalypse.”

Mr. Wood acknowledges that ISIS reflects only one, minority strain within Islam. “Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

He quotes Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on ISIS’ theology. The group’s fighters, Mr. Haykel says, “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” and denials of its religious nature spring from embarrassment, political correctness and an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

The Islamic State is different from al Qaeda and almost all other jihadist movements, according to Mr. Wood, “in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character.” Its spokesman has vowed: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.” They believe we are in the End of Days. They speak of how “the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria.” The battle will be Rome’s Waterloo. After that, a countdown to the apocalypse.

Who exactly is “Rome”? That’s unclear. Maybe Turkey, maybe any infidel army. Maybe America.

What should the West do to meet the challenge? Here Mr. Wood’s tone turns more tentative. We should help the Islamic State “self-immolate.”

Those urging America to commit tens of thousand of troops “should not be dismissed too quickly.” ISIS is, after all, an avowedly genocidal and expansionist organization, and its mystique can be damaged if it loses its grip on the territory it holds. Al Qaeda, from which ISIS is estranged and which it has eclipsed, can operate as an underground network. ISIS cannot, “because territorial authority is a requirement.”

But ISIS wants to draw America into the fight. A U.S. invasion and occupation, Mr. Wood argues, would be a propaganda victory for them, because they’ve long said the U.S. has always intended to embark on a modern-day crusade against Islam. And if a U.S. ground invasion launched and failed, it would be a disaster.

The best of bad options, Mr. Wood believes, is to “slowly bleed” ISIS through air strikes and proxy warfare. The Kurds and the Shiites cannot vanquish them, but they can “keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand.” That would make it look less like “the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammed. ” As time passed ISIS could “stagnate” and begin to sink. Word of its cruelties would spread; it could become another failed state.

But that death, as Mr. Wood notes, “is unlikely to be quick,” and any number of things could go wrong, including a dangerous rapprochement with al Qaeda.

Mr. Wood’s piece is bracing because it is fearless—he is apparently not afraid of being called a bigot or an Islamophobe. It is important because it gives people, especially political leaders, information they need to understand a phenomenon that may urgently shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 10 years.

In sorry contrast, of course, are the Obama administration’s willful delusions and dodges. They reached their height this week when State Department spokesman Marie Harf talked on MSNBC of the “root causes” that drive jihadists, such as “lack of opportunity for jobs.” She later went on CNN to explain: “Where there’s a lack of governance, you’ve had young men attracted to this terrorist cause where there aren’t other opportunities. . . . So how do you get at that root causes?” She admitted her view “might be too nuanced of an argument for some.”

Yes, it might.

It isn’t about getting a job. They have a job: waging jihad.

The president famously cannot even name the ISIS threat forthrightly, and that is a criticism not of semantics but of his thinking. ISIS isn’t the only terrorist group, he says, Christians have committed their own sins over history, what about the Crusades, don’t get on your high horse. It’s all so evasive. Each speech comes across as an attempt to make up for the previous speech’s mistakes in tone and substance. At the “violent extremism” summit this week he emphasized Islamic “legitimate grievances” and lectured America on the need for tolerance toward American Muslims.

Of extremists he said: “They say they are religious leaders—they are not religious leaders, they are terrorists.” But ISIS and its followers believe they are religious leaders, prophets who use terrorism to achieve aims they find in religious texts.

On the closing day of the summit the president said, “When people are oppressed and human rights are denied . . . when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism.” Yes, sure. But isn’t ISIS oppressing people, denying their human rights and silencing dissent?

“When peaceful democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only available answer.” Yes, sure. But the young men and women ISIS recruits from Western nations already live in peaceful democracies.

It’s not enough. They want something else. It is, ironically, disrespectful not to name what they are, and what they are about.

An Honest Reporter, and His Antithesis Bob Simon was everything a journalist should be. Brian Williams could have profited from the example.

Bob Simon in Baghdad in 1991

Bob Simon in Baghdad in 1991

I was at dinner at the home of a friend, a journalist, when the phone rang. I heard her say, “Oh no, no,” and saw her face: Something terrible had happened, not to her personally but in the world. She got off and told us that Bob Simon, the CBS News correspondent, had died. I knew she was about to add, “in the Mideast,” or “shot down,” but she said “a car crash,” on New York’s West Side Highway. My first thought was: What an injustice. Bob Simon, who covered Vietnam, the Troubles in Ireland, the Gulf Wars, who was taken prisoner by Saddam Hussein —Bob should have left in the thick of it, in a war, dodging bullets. Nothing banal should have taken that soul away.

He was a bona fide and veteran foreign correspondent. I knew him at CBS, where I am now a contributor, a young man but already a person of stature, known for daring and judgment. He was different from the clichés of his job: He didn’t have movie-star looks or a polished baritone. But he had guts, flair, the mind of a reporter and a clear, clean writing style that, on inspection, was more than clear and clean.

All CBS, the next day, was in mourning. “Oh my God, this place just dissolved,” said his “60 Minutes” colleague Lesley Stahl. “Everybody here loved Bob Simon.” She had just come from a meeting of the show’s staff. “Everyone spoke, from the control room to reporters to editors to assistants, and everybody said basically the same thing, which is what he really wanted to be was a regular guy. . . . He didn’t want to be a big TV star, he didn’t want the trappings.” He wanted to walk the streets unrecognized.

“He was no-bull about people and things,” said John Reade, a former CBS News producer who worked with Simon for three decades. “His attitude toward news was ‘Get a load of this!’” It wasn’t indignation or “Are you kidding me?” It was, as Mr. Reade put it, “Get a load of this, it’s beautiful!”

He wasn’t dramatic or self-valorizing. “He didn’t take unnecessary chances, he took necessary ones,” said Mr. Reade. He protected his crew. “Television is a collaborative business. A finished piece, if it’s well-shot, well-cut, well-written, well-narrated, is a gem the whole crew can enjoy. They were proud to work with him.”

Both praised his writing. Ms. Stahl: “He was maybe the best writer for television news alive. He could get more feeling and thinking in a piece than anybody else. There was almost a moral quality to his work. A lot of his stories dealt with injustice, and there was a simplicity to his writing, a poetic succinctness.”

And he had range. “He covered a lot of war, a lot of violence—wherever there was any kind of explosion, there he went. But he also loved music and has a body of work about opera, orchestras, young musicians.”

Once a former president of CBS News suggested he get voice lessons, and everyone at “60 Minutes” groaned: “This is Bob—you can’t take Bob away from Bob,” Ms. Stahl remembered the thinking. “His writing and his voice were the same thing.”

Bob Simon was 73. He was the real thing.

*   *   *

And now the counterpoint. Some thoughts on Brian Williams.

I watched like everyone else the past 10 days, at first thinking one bad embarrassment does not sink a career, and then seeing the embarrassments pile up. An acquaintance, a journalist, quoted an old Japanese saying to the effect that people forget everything after 2½ months. I think we forget the specifics, the ins and outs of a scandal, but we retain the essential word that captures it, and the word here is lies. That isn’t a word that can be attached to the public face of a major news organization.

I think NBC essentially ended Mr. Williams’s career as anchor of the evening news, and did what they had to do.

He could not continue as a reporter of the news, or an interviewer who elicits news, because he could no longer report or grill when the story is lies. And in modern America the story is always lies. The 2016 presidential campaign has already begun. There will be famous gaffes, fibs, embarrassments, embellishments. How can an anchor or reporter ask questions when his own tendency to invent and embellish is well-established and a subject of national mirth?

Why did he invent tales of Bob Simon-like derring-do? He was already at the top and he was brave in the sense that everyone who goes to where the explosions are is showing physical courage. He was impressive without embellishments.

He probably doesn’t know himself. Watching the story unfold I thought of a line from the 1974 film “The Gambler”: “They’re all looking to lose.” Everyone who gambles isn’t only looking for the high, the score, the win but also for the other thing they need, the loss, the brush with death, the adrenal jolt of being ruined.

Mr. Williams’s fictions look very much like a form of gambling. They say he was warned, and he didn’t stop. He must have known each time he was telling an untruth that he was heightening the risk he’d be caught. He came up in the age of videotape and reigned in the age of the Internet. Someone was going to find something, and year by year they didn’t. He added to his stories the way a gambler on a streak increases his bets. “The rocket hit a helicopter” became ‘the rocket hit my helicopter,’ the crime in New Orleans became the gangs that overran his hotel.

Lessons? Anchors shouldn’t be allowed to become anchor-monsters. When management knows its anchor tells tall tales, it has to have the means to stop him. Things that are too big to fail, fail.

No one is safe anymore. Status is no longer a buffer. We know this in the abstract, but it’s still startling in the particular. Technology makes scandal faster and more completely devastating.

They can hurt you with tape but kill you with laughter. Many people, uncoordinated and unaffiliated, can bring down a target by doing a full frisk of past statements on the Internet, that incredible tool. But as powerful a weapon is anarchic wit. If you went to #BrianWilliamsMisremembers on Twitter , you laughed at the picture of him standing with Lincoln on the battlefield, or reporting live, apparently as St. Joseph, on the birth of Christ. American wit is in very good form, and it can be lethal. It wasn’t only investigative work that shaped the outcome of the Brian Williams story, it was the number of people laughing.

America is hungry for authenticity and honesty and fiercely resents its absence from places where it should be.

A longtime reader of this column, age 84, emailed recently to say the heartbreak of his life the past few years has been witnessing the daily corruption of all information—the rigging of numbers and claiming of facts, the scientific papers that manipulate data to advance a political agenda, the misleading government statistics. We’re drowning in lies, he said.

That is not an exaggeration.

Recrimination Is Not a Plan Islamic State has Washington paralyzed. Here’s a way forward.

Everything’s frozen. When you ask, “What is the appropriate U.S. response to ISIS?” half the people in Washington answer: “ George W. Bush broke Iraq and ISIS was born in the rubble. There would be no ISIS if it weren’t for him.” The other half answer: “When Barack Obama withdrew from Iraq, ISIS was born in the vacuum. There would be no ISIS without him.”

These are charges, not answers, and they are getting us nowhere. Bitterness and begging the question are keeping us from focusing on what is. We’re frozen in what was.

King Abdullah II of Jordan

King Abdullah II, the Supreme Commander of Jordan Armed Forces (L), meeting with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin (R) in Amman, Jordan, on February 5, 2015.

There’s plenty to learn and conclude from the past. Great books have been and will be written about the mistakes, poor thinking and dishonesty that accompanied the 2003 invasion and the 2011 withdrawal. But at a certain point you have to unhitch yourself from your predispositions and resentments and face what is happening now.

The White House is paralyzed, the president among the coldest of the frozen. He erects straw men, focuses on what he will not do, refuses to “play Whac A Mole,” waxes on about reading a book about the pains of the deployed. He’s showing how sensitive, layered and alive to moral complexity he is instead of, you know, leading. At the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, he airily and from a great height explained to the audience that ISIS exists within a historical context that includes the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow. “People committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Oh West, you big hypocrite. This is just the moment to dilate on Christendom’s sins, isn’t it? While Christians are being driven from the Mideast? He always says these things as if he’s the enlightened one facing the facts of the buried past instead of the cornered one defeated by complexity, hard calls and ambivalence.

He is lost. His policy is listlessness punctuated by occasional booms.

The public is agitated by the latest killing, of the Jordanian pilot burned alive. That murder may have changed some calculations. Jordan’s King Abdullah is said to have quoted Clint Eastwood during his recent Washington trip: “He mentioned ‘Unforgiven,’ ” a congressman said, without specifying which scene. Well, good.

Which returns us to the question of a plan, a way forward.

We know ISIS is increasingly hated by the civilized world, and by many nations in the Mideast. Each day that brings new word of their atrocities, not only to prisoners but to local, subjugated populations, adds to the anti-ISIS coalition. But we also know they will not be defeated or decisively set back from the air. They have to be removed from the areas they hold. They need to be fought with boots on the ground.

Whose boots?

Some wisdom on that from two veteran players in U.S. foreign policy, former Secretary of State James Baker and the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass.

On “Face the Nation” Sunday, Mr. Baker said ground troops are necessary but must come from Arab and Muslim allies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “My idea would be to go to the Turks, 60-year allies of the United States, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They have a good army. It’s an army that will fight. . . . They want to destroy ISIS. We want to destroy ISIS. There’s a convergence of interests here. Why don’t we get together and we say, look, we will supply the air, the logistics and the intelligence, you put the boots on the ground and go in there and do the job?”

I spoke to Mr. Baker at CBS before his appearance. He said the world is “coalescing,” and this is the time to move, with diplomacy and leadership.

So, a multinational Arab and Muslim military force to fight ISIS on the ground. Is this the right way to go?

Very much so, said Mr. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. ISIS, he told me this week, is “a network, a movement and an organization.” It poses a geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian threat to the world. It threatens Sunni regimes in the region—if it wins over their populations, “it turns every country into a potential failed state.”

ISIS “can disrupt oil-producing areas like Saudi Arabia. . . . It is inevitable that they will one day challenge the House of Saud” through terrorism or by attempting to rouse the population against it. “If you’re the Islamic State, you have to control the country that controls the two holiest sites in Islam,” Mecca and Medina, Mr. Haass added. America doesn’t worry about the threat to the oil supply because we are close to energy self-sufficiency, but “we are economically linked to the world, and much of the world is linked to Mideastern oil.”

Most famously, “any area controlled by ISIS is a humanitarian nightmare to Muslims not devout enough, to Shia, to Christians.”

There is the threat to American and Western security of returnees. “ISIS has the potential to produce graduates who come home, and to radicalize those who’ve never set foot in Syria. There is the returnee danger and the self-radicalization danger, as we saw recently in France.”

Right now what is important, Mr. Haass says, “is to break their momentum. The region and the world see them as gaining ground both literally and figuratively. This draws support from those around them. It’s important to break that, to allow those who are wavering to see that ISIS is not inevitable. If they are seen as inevitable it is self-fulfilling.”

What to do? Mr. Haass echoes Mr. Baker. “Attacking ISIS from the air is necessary but not sufficient. You need ground forces to seize areas ISIS holds. You need a ground partner.”

That partner should be “a multinational Arab-led expeditionary force—a force on the ground to take territory. It needs to be Arab and it needs to be Sunni, because you need to fight fire with fire.” It is crucial, he says, that Sunni Arab leaders demonstrate it is legitimate to stand up to ISIS.

Haass includes in a hypothetical force Jordan, the Saudis, the UAE, and “others—Egypt too. Even Turkey. . . . That’s what you need, politically as much as militarily. Unless that happens we don’t have a viable strategy.”

He agrees the U.S. should help with intelligence, training and special forces as well as air power. Also needed: “a digital strategy that stresses that ISIS’ behavior contravenes tenets of Islam and means misery for those they dominate.”

So—move to kill the Islamic State’s mystique. Give them a fight, make them the weak horse, and do everything to bring together the Sunni Arab world to do it.

Is this possible? Can it be done? Mr. Haass said it is “a long shot” but “not inconceivable.” Moreover, “it’s the conversation we should be having. We should make answering this question the priority.”

The U.S. would have to lead, push, press, promise and cajole. It would have to use diplomatic and financial muscle. But it would be doing so with allies increasingly alive to the threat ISIS constitutes not only to the world, but to them.

And it is a plan. Who has a better one?

America’s Strategy Deficit A haphazard foreign policy makes a complicated world more dangerous.

Something is going on here.

On Tuesday retired Gen. James Mattis, former head of U.S. Central Command (2010-13) told the Senate Armed Services Committee of his unhappiness at the current conduct of U.S. foreign policy. He said the U.S. is not “adapting to changed circumstances” in the Mideast and must “come out now from our reactive crouch.” Washington needs a “refreshed national strategy”; the White House needs to stop being consumed by specific, daily occurrences that leave it “reacting” to events as if they were isolated and unconnected. He suggested deep bumbling: “Notifying the enemy in advance of our withdrawal dates” and declaring “certain capabilities” off the table is no way to operate.

Sitting beside him was Gen. Jack Keane, also a respected retired four-star, and a former Army vice chief of staff, who said al Qaeda has “grown fourfold in the last five years” and is “beginning to dominate multiple countries.” He called radical Islam “the major security challenge of our generation” and said we are failing to meet it.

 Madeleine Albright and George Shultz listening to Henry Kissinger

Madeleine Albright and George Shultz look on as their fellow former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, testifies in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Jan. 29.

The same day the generals testified, Kimberly Dozier of the Daily Beast reported that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a retired director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had told a Washington conference: “You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists.” The audience of military and intelligence professionals applauded. Officials, he continued, are “paralyzed” by the complexity of the problems connected to militant Islam, and so do little, reasoning that “passivity is less likely to provoke our enemies.”

These statements come on the heels of the criticisms from President Obama’s own former secretaries of defense. Robert Gates, in “Duty,” published in January 2014, wrote of a White House-centric foreign policy developed by aides and staffers who are too green or too merely political. One day in a meeting the thought occurred that Mr. Obama “doesn’t trust” the military, “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” That’s pretty damning. Leon Panetta , in his 2014 memoir, “Worthy Fights,” said Mr. Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

No one thinks this administration is the A Team when it comes to foreign affairs, but this is unprecedented push-back from top military and intelligence players. They are fed up, they’re less afraid, they’re retired, and they’re speaking out. We are going to be seeing more of this kind of criticism, not less.

On Thursday came the testimony of three former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger (1973-77), George Shultz (1982-89) and Madeleine Albrigh t (1997-2001). Senators asked them to think aloud about what America’s national-security strategy should be, what approaches are appropriate to the moment. It was good to hear serious, not-green, not-merely-political people give a sense of the big picture. Their comments formed a kind of bookend to the generals’ criticisms.

They seemed to be in agreement on these points:

We are living through a moment of monumental world change.

Old orders are collapsing while any new stability has yet to emerge.

When you’re in uncharted waters your boat must be strong.

If America attempts to disengage from this dangerous world it will only make all the turmoil worse.

Mr. Kissinger observed that in the Mideast, multiple upheavals are unfolding simultaneously—within states, between states, between ethnic and religious groups. Conflicts often merge and produce such a phenomenon as the Islamic State, which in the name of the caliphate is creating a power base to undo all existing patterns.

Mr. Shultz said we are seeing an attack on the state system and the rise of a “different view of how the world should work.” What’s concerning is “the scope of it.”

Mr. Kissinger: “We haven’t faced such diverse crises since the end of the Second World War.” The U.S. is in “a paradoxical situation” in that “by any standard of national capacity . . . we can shape international relations,” but the complexity of the present moment is daunting. The Cold War was more dangerous, but the world we face now is more complicated.

How to proceed in creating a helpful and constructive U.S. posture?

Mr. Shultz said his attitude when secretary of state was, “If you want me in on the landing, include me in the takeoff.” Communication and consensus building between the administration and Congress is key. He added: “The government seems to have forgotten about the idea of ‘execution.’ ” It’s not enough that you say something, you have to do it, make all the pieces work.

When you make a decision, he went on, “stick with it.” Be careful with words. Never make a threat or draw a line you can’t or won’t make good on.

In negotiations, don’t waste time wondering what the other side will accept, keep your eye on what you can and work from there.

Keep the U.S. military strong, peerless, pertinent to current challenges.

Proceed to negotiations with your agenda clear and your strength unquestionable.

Mr. Kissinger: “In our national experience . . . we have trouble doing a national strategy” because we have been secure behind two big oceans. We see ourselves as a people who respond to immediate, specific challenges and then go home. But foreign policy today is not a series of discrete events, it is a question of continuous strategy in the world.

America plays the role of “stabilizer.” But it must agree on its vision before it can move forward on making it reality. There are questions that we must as a nation answer:

As we look at the world, what is it we seek to prevent? What do we seek to achieve? What can we prevent or achieve only if supported by an alliance? What values do we seek to advance? “This will require public debate.”

All agreed the cost-cutting burdens and demands on defense spending forced by the sequester must be stopped. National defense “should have a strategy-driven budget, not a budget-driven strategy,” said Mr. Kissinger.

He added that in the five wars since World War II, the U.S. began with “great enthusiasm” and had “great national difficulty” in ending them. In the last two, “withdrawal became the principal definition of strategy.” We must avoid that in the future. “We have to know the objective at the start and develop a strategy to achieve it.”

Does the U.S. military have enough to do what we must do?

“It’s not adequate to deal with all the challenges I see,” said Mr. Kissinger, “or the commitments into which we may be moving.”

Sequestration is “legislative insanity,” said Mr. Shultz. “You have to get rid of it.”

Both made a point of warning against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which Mr. Shultz called “those awful things.” The Hiroshima bomb, he said, was a plaything compared with the killing power of modern nuclear weapons. A nuclear device detonated in Washington would “wipe out” the area. Previous progress on and attention to nuclear proliferation has, he said, been “derailed.”

So we need a strategy, and maybe more than one. We need to know what we’re doing and why. After this week with the retired generals and the former secretaries, the message is: Awake. See the world’s facts as they are. Make a plan.

Bibi, Sitter

Whatever your views on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party, and the upcoming Israeli elections, put them aside for a moment and appreciate this as sheer political art. It is one of the best political ads I have ever seen—funny, warm, surprising and clever. It seems aimed at what I’d think is one of Netanyahu’s prime problems as a political figure, which is his heavy grimness, his air of aggression and constant warning. Here he is playful, jolly, a father figure. In a quick-moving 1:15, the spot takes acutely aimed yet gentle slaps at his opponents; it suggests everyone knows and so it doesn’t have to be explained that Isaac Herzog is weak and confused and Tzipi Livni unreliable and frenetic. The spot has a sort of French feel, with the comic music and the antic husband. Whoever conceived, wrote and directed it knew something most people, at least over here, do not, or at least I didn’t: Netanyahu is a really good actor.

An interesting artistic question, on first viewing, was why they chose not to include children in an ad about babysitting. The answer turns out to be Israeli election law, which does not allow the use of children under 15 in political ads. Netanyahu’s campaign was recently stopped from airing a commercial in which his opponents were portrayed as rowdy schoolchildren. In the babysitter ad, Netanyahu is watching a clip of himself on a screen, and chuckling. The clip apparently comes from the banned ad.

A Republic of Disrespect America’s partisan divisions spread to international relations.

It’s odd in Washington now. There’s a lot of claiming of authority and no taking of responsibility.

The president gave his State of the Union address, and of course the TV ratings were bad—Nielsen put viewership at 31.7 million, the lowest since Bill Clinton ’s last State of the Union, in 2000, when America had 38 million fewer people. Although the low ratings are generally attributed to President Obama ’s no longer being new and a symbol of hope, there’s more to it, such as a lack of credibility.

Mr. Obama sturdily declared that pages have been turned and crises surmounted. He has become a better actor in his presidency, with better command of and engagement with his material, but the material reflected nothing new in terms of his essential attitudes. He quickly glossed over the Islamic State: “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership—including our military power—is stopping ISIL’s advance.” I liked the “including our military power,” but: Really? Few on the ground see anything but an Islamic State on the move. Literally as the president spoke, Yemen’s government was falling to Iranian-backed groups whose takeover is assumed to be good news for an al Qaeda branch poised to fill the void. The president’s habit of detaching from what is actually happening—of declaring in fact that the opposite is happening—is a marvel to behold. History will speak of it.

Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barrack Obama at the White House, Jan. 16.

After forgetting to be gracious to the victors of the 2014 election, or even to note there’d been a significant election, he referred to his relations with Congress. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different,” he said. “A better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.” It is instead one “where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.” Well, OK, but before this sweet hectoring he had sternly threatened to veto Republican-backed legislation. ( CBS News ’s Mark Knoller counts nine veto threats since the new Congress was sworn in Jan. 6.) Somehow Mr. Obama’s olive branch always looks like a blunt instrument. He has spent the past six years blaming Republicans when he wasn’t ignoring or dissing them, and despite some nice touches in the speech, his essential disrespect for his political adversaries shone through.

He hates them. They hate him back.

On the Republican side we see disrespect toward the president—and, more consequentially, toward the presidency—in the decision of GOP Hill leaders to invite, without conferring with the White House or the State Department, a foreign head of government, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to address a joint session of Congress next month.

On hearing of this I got the same sinking feeling I did last week when Mr. Obama met with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House and, during their joint news conference, Mr. Cameron acknowledged to reporters that he’d personally lobbied U.S. senators to back Mr. Obama on Iran sanctions. Should a foreign leader be on the phone jawboning with members of the American Congress about what they should or should not do? Um, no. It’s a breaching of diplomatic form and tradition. You go run your country, we’ll run ours, and then, because we’re friends and allies and love each other, we’ll meet and talk and see if we can’t get into agreement.

But the Netanyahu invitation seems to me worse. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the idea was “cooked up” behind the back of the American president, that the White House, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Israel “were totally excluded from these contacts,” that they had been neither consulted nor informed before the invitation was issued by the Republican leadership. (Haaretz also noted that Mr. Netanyahu faces an election in two months.)

Mr. Netanyahu is welcome to visit and speak to Americans anytime he wants, but Congress’s invitation, like Mr. Cameron’s lobbying, is a violation of diplomatic form, tradition and expectation. The United States has an elected president who serves a four-year term, and in that time he gets to conduct the nation’s formal diplomatic efforts and policy and to oversee its foreign-affairs apparatus and agencies.

Does Mr. Obama deserve to be embarrassed in this way? Of course he does! In his long years in the presidency he has demonstrated no regard for the Republicans of Congress, and now they are showing no regard for him.

But it is still a bad move, a damaging snub that makes divisions more dramatic, and not only between Congress and the president. Mr. Obama is forced to decide whether to invite Mr. Netanyahu to visit the White House while he is in Washington. The White House announced it will not, pointedly attributing the decision to “the proximity to the Israeli election.” This too is a snub, and it is hard to see how it does anything to fortify U.S.-Israeli relations.

Worst of all is the costly precedent the invitation risks setting.

When the Democratic Party wins a majority in Congress, and someday it will, it can do the same thing to a Republican president—bring over for a great joint session address, at a dramatic moment, a foreign leader with whom that president is in opposition or deep tension.

Congress has the authority to do what it’s doing, but is it the responsible thing? Congress and the White House are supposed to work together on foreign affairs, as a matter not only of politesse but practicality. If this scenario becomes the norm—an angry Congress embarrassing or putting in a poor position a sitting American president—it would make

*   *   *

I close with an admittedly odd jump, but it’s about something I couldn’t get out of my mind when I thought of the conspicuously odd moments in Washington this week.

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, someone decided it would be amusing or helpful to unleash a small drone. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology was meeting and suddenly the drone was flying around the front of the wood-paneled room, released by a young marketing executive from a company called 3D Robotics. The committee’s chairman seemed startled on the C-Span recording, though it appeared he gave permission for the display.

The drone was a flat, plastic thing with an evil little buzz. What I thought as I watched was: It would be nice if Washington would do one big thing in the next few weeks—see to it that since everyone now has recreational or commercial drones, we can come up with a way to control their use in and around airports. Actually, what I thought was: Someday one of them will fly one into the engine of a 757 like a gaggle of New York airport geese, and we’ll all hope Sully Sullenberger is at the controls.

They could do that if they were willing to take responsibility.

‘American Sniper’

I saw “American Sniper” last night. It is not a great movie but it is a powerful one. It had the power to leave a packed Manhattan movie house silent—really, completely silent—as they stared at the closing credits and tried to absorb the meaning of what they’d seen. They filed out silently, too. It’s not so hard to leave an audience in a good mood or hungry for dinner, but this silence spoke of a real thoughtfulness. It was a mixed crowd, young and old.

In the movie the sniper, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, exists for one reason: to stop or kill belligerents who are in the act of attempting to take out American soldiers. If they are attempting to aim an armed rocket-propelled grenade, or they are themselves snipers or al Qaeda fighters, they are in his crosshairs. The American sniper does not shoot those who are not immediately aiming to harm someone. He uses discernment. If he doesn’t he’ll be in legal and military trouble. When he trains his weapon on a mother and son he does not want to shoot. When he sees the grenade the mother passes to her son as they advance toward a U.S. convoy, he shoots. When an Iraqi sniper kills one of his friends he sets himself to finding him and taking him out.

Kyle completely believes, and the viewer is persuaded, that his duty is protecting people, saving the lives of his troops. That’s his daily job and he does it with discipline, talent and professionalism. He’s so good at it he comes to be seen as and called a legend. He is celebrated for his kills; he’d rather someone kept a count of his saves. When after his last tour he sees a Navy psychiatrist who asks him about things he wishes he hadn’t done, he says, “Oh, that’s not me. No.”

“What’s not you?” the doctor asks, with the bland yet piercing look psychiatrists get in movies.

“I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill . . . our soldiers and I . . . I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.” He adds, “The thing that . . . haunts me are all the guys that I couldn’t save.” That is both the story he told himself and the story he thinks is true.

The movie seems to have pinged off something in the American psyche, with its huge box-office opening. (All hail Clint Eastwood, running the tables at age 84.) Some of the reasons would be obvious. It is based on a bestselling book, the essential facts of which are generally known. We are increasingly a nation of veterans. It is an action story, a war story, with Eastwood directing and Bradley Cooper as the star. But it is also a story about love of country, and what some of those who love it most sacrifice to show that love. Kyle, the movie makes clear, joined up to defend America after al Qaeda began making its moves. When he was a boy his father taught him not to be a sheep or a wolf but a sheepdog—a protector of others. The movie is a meditation on this. It is interesting that Americans want such a meditation.

On the Iraq war it takes no stand. While the film glorifies war—all battlefield heroics, by being admirable, glorify war—there is a persistent antiwar presence, and not only because depicting the damage and dislocation done to those visited by war is an antiwar statement. Chris Kyle’s brother, on leaving Iraq after his own tour, makes a statement suggestion the U.S. is in the wrong place. A heartbroken mother at a stateside funeral seems to cry out for peace. Kyle’s close friend shares his doubts. Kyle doesn’t share them but he hears them, and Eastwood lets them echo out. This is a fair-minded movie. It is not anyone’s propaganda.

It is not a great movie because it is formulaic. We see the scenes we’ve always seen. Boot camp is hell, Kyle and his wife meet cute in a bar near the base, etc. It is all done in a solid and serviceable way but often looks like the latest iteration of what’s been done before. It is being compared, favorably, to 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” but that movie was a higher form of art, full of surprise and edgier, more confounding. It’s one thing to show Bradley Cooper clenching his jaw at a child’s backyard birthday party, but it was more powerful when Jeremy Renner mindlessly pushes a huge shopping cart through a huge food store with a thousand breakfast cereals and that’s his job now, two days out of Iraq, to choose the right cereal.

Here is one unanticipated cost of how we wage modern war. We ask a lot of our troops emotionally in terms of how we schedule their tours. If during World War II we had our soldiers serve nine or 10 months invading Europe, witnessing carnage and taking part in bloody battles . . . and then had them return for two or three months to banal, Benny Goodman-playing America . . . then sent them back to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the death camps . . . then back home for a few months—well, that would be asking rather a lot for U.S. troops to emotionally sustain and absorb. The modern, relatively short tour punctuated by home leave is meant to be compassionate and is wholly understandable as policy: Soldiers have families, including children who desperately need them. But you can’t expect people to go from horror—constant alert, fear, adrenaline, life-and-death choices—to common peace and ordinariness, and expect them to immediately act the part of the “normal person.” My father was a U.S. army private in Italy late in World War II, and the one thing he talked about was the long ship ride home when the war ended, with thousands of other GIs—decompressing with other guys in cots, reading, smoking, yakking, getting themselves ready for America again. They had time to acclimate. Now it’s defuse the bomb in Bagdad on Monday and go to the Lobster Shack in central Jersey on Wednesday. That is asking a lot, and we ask it over and over.

Connected to that, a problem with the film so egregious it must be noted. The part of the one central woman, the wife, is so poorly done. She is a pretty young woman who means nothing, who is neither impressive as a character nor poignant nor wholly fleshed out, and every time you see her she is whining at her husband and crying because he is here but not here, he is damaged, he’s got to get with it and be a better father. She weeps, she complains. The role is so poorly written, or directed, or edited, or conceived. The actress seems to have done her best with what she was given. It doesn’t seem to occur to the filmmakers that while the Chris Kyle character does not understand how spooked and detached from family life he has become, she never understands he’s been living inside a violent video game for nine months, only it wasn’t a game, and the things he saw would have changed him, changed anyone, forever.

And yes, everyone noticed the artificial baby, and it was a silly way to save money and eliminate takes, if that was the purpose. You can always hire someone who acts like an infant. Next time try Seth Rogen.

Bread Bags

This is a good day, with the snow starting to come down heavy in storm-braced New York, to look at the only memorable image to come from the State of the Union address. That image came from the response, by Joni Ernst, Iowa’s new U.S. senator.

She spoke, at the top of the speech, of her childhood in Red Oak, the town in southwestern Iowa where she grew up: “As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardee’s. We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning. You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet. Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.”

Ernst had referred to the bread bags before, most notably on the campaign trail last summer when she was running against a wealthy Democratic trial lawyer. What she was saying was: I live in the real world, I came from modest circumstances like most of you, I’m not fancy. Nothing new in this approach, it’s as old as Pat Nixon and her Republican cloth coat. Also, to a Republican Party increasingly interested in class tropes, Ernst was saying: I’m not some scared secret liberal from the suburbs who’ll throw you over once I get to Washington, I’m a real conservative.

Leftism too has its class tropes, only they come from the opposite angle. Response on the left to Ernst and the bread bags was snobbish, superior and dumb to the point of embarrassing. First, they couldn’t believe it—no one wears bread bags on their shoes in a storm, how absurd, she must be developmentally challenged. Then they denigrated what she said, putting pictures on Twitter of themselves wearing bread bags on their feet, accompanied by comments that had all the whiff of the upper class speaking of the quaint ways of the help. Andy Borowitz, surprisingly, wrote a dumb, leaden spoof in the New Yorker that seemed a companion piece to Politico’s earlier use of a photo of Ernst that gave her crazy eyes.

I liked what Ernst said because it was real. And it reminded me of the old days.

There are a lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be on social media, who do not know some essentials about their country, but this is the way it was in America once, only 40 and 50 years ago:

America had less then. Americans had less.

If you were from a family that was barely or not quite getting by, you really had one pair of shoes. If your family was doing OK you had one pair of shoes for school and also a pair of what were called Sunday shoes—black leather or patent leather shoes. If you were really comfortable you had a pair of shoes for school, Sunday shoes, a pair of play shoes and even boots, which where I spent my childhood (Brooklyn, and Massapequa, Long Island) were called galoshes or rubbers. At a certain point everyone had to have sneakers for gym, but if you didn’t have sneakers you could share a pair with a friend, trading them in the hall before class.

If you had just one pair of shoes, which was the case in my family, you had trouble when it rained or snowed. How to deal with it?

You used the plastic bags that bread came in. Or you used plastic bags that other items came in. Or you used Saran Wrap if you had it, wrapping your shoes and socks in it. Or you let your shoes and socks get all wet, which we also did.

I remember using string, rubber bands or tape to fasten the plastic over my shoes. So does one of my sisters. Another sister remembered wrapping her socks in plastic bags and then putting on her shoes—she’d let the shoes get wet but protect her feet. The other night, at a swank Manhattan restaurant, my friend Vin remembered putting bread bags over his shoes to get them into his boots. This allowed me to tease him as a Rockefeller.

But America then had less in terms of things—shoes, coats, gloves. I can’t say, “And no one was ashamed.” At a certain point it was embarrassing to for whatever reasons not have the right things, or to come across as haphazard or not taken care of. Kids want to fit in. But there were enough kids in difficult circumstances that you weren’t alone.

In Joni Ernst’s case there was no embarrassment: all the other kids on the bus were wearing bread bags on their shoes, too.

I liked imagining that. I liked her reminding me of not so long ago, before America got rich.

Don’t Do It, Mr. Romney He’d have been a better president than Obama. That’s not nearly enough.

Hershey, Pa.

A conversation with a Republican governor who is a possible presidential aspirant:

I told him I’d been thinking about something and wanted his response. You can argue that a governor is a better presidential nominee than a senator because governors, unlike lawmakers, have to do something and can be judged by their performance, which is measurable. You can look at their terms and say they raised or cut taxes, which helped or hurt the economy. They reformed the prison system, or they failed to. They balanced the budget or they didn’t. They improved education or not. They succeeded or failed in creating a favorable business climate. There are numbers and statistics that can to some degree test their claims. They know domestic issues and can be judged on domestic issues.

But they know nothing about the world. They haven’t been filling their brain-space with foreign policy and foreign affairs the past 20 years; they’ve been filling their minds with the facts of Indiana or Louisiana or New Jersey.

Don't Do It!

Don’t Do It!

And so when they go national, they farm out these key areas to the party’s foreign-policy eggheads. And they unknowingly become captured by this worldview or that, this tendency and attitude or that. And they don’t even know they’ve been captured, they’re not that sophisticated. They just think they handed the foreign-policy portfolio over to someone respectable who’s called a thinker. (The first thing the thinker usually shares is not a thought but political advice: “You have to sound strong!”)

Senators, on the other hand, can’t be judged by clear domestic measures. They don’t have to do anything but talk on TV. Their communications offices send out press releases on their latest bill, which goes nowhere because the Senate doesn’t really do anything anymore, it’s just a big talking machine. You can’t judge them by what they did on unemployment or schools or taxes because they haven’t done anything.

But on foreign affairs they actually know a few things, because foreign affairs is in their portfolio. They’re on the Foreign Relations or Armed Services committee, they’re on subcommittees dealing with serious international issues, they go on fact-finding trips to Iraq and Africa and Asia. They visit and to some degree witness the results of American action or inaction. They get a more worldly view. (Once a senator told me his life is an intellectual feast. He gets to meet with scientists, prime ministers, visionaries, historians, great men—he has access to everyone, being a senator. I thought jeesh, glad you’re having a good time on our dime. But I also thought, OK, he’s going to know some things by the time he’s done.)

Anyway, to the governor I said, in a world in which foreign affairs continue to be more important than ever, in a dangerous world with which we have ever more dealings, shouldn’t we be thinking about senators for the presidency, and not governors?

He listened closely, nodded, then shook his head. No, he said, governors still have the advantage. Why? Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts. And your instincts are sharpened by the kind of experience you get as a chief executive in a statehouse, which is constant negotiation with antagonists who have built-in power bases. You learn what works from success and failure with entrenched powers that can undo you, from unions to local pressure groups to unreliable allies. Being a governor is about handling real and discernible power. A governor can learn what a senator knows more easily than a senator can learn what a governor knows.

This will be one of the subtexts of the 2016 GOP presidential race.

Regarding that race, the news this week was of Mitt Romney’s seriousness in considering running again for the nomination. I just spent two days at the Republican joint congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., and can tell you there was exactly no Mitt-momentum. The talk, when it turned to 2016, was of others. Those in attendance seemed to be trying to get the possibility of Mitt Part 3 through their heads, because while they understand it on a personal level—no one who’s been in the game ever wants to leave the game—they could see no compelling political rationale.

Everyone this week came down on Mr. Romney. In major newspapers and on political websites they listed their reasons he shouldn’t run. He is yesterday, we need tomorrow. He is an example of what didn’t work, we have to turn the page. He is and always has been philosophically murky—it’s almost part of his charm—but it’s not what’s needed now. He ran a poor campaign in 2012 and will run a poor one in 2016. He was a gaffe machine—“47%”; “I have some great friends that are Nascar team owners”—and those gaffes played into the party’s brand problems.

In defense of Mr. Romney’s idea, and what must be the impulse behind it, is this. If every voter in America were today given a secret toggle switch and told, “If you tug the toggle to the left, Barack Obama will stay president until January, 2017; if you tug it to the right, Mitt Romney will become president,” about 60% of the American people would tug right.

It must be hard for him to know that, and make him want to give it another try. But it’s also true that America would, right now, choose your Uncle Ralph who spends his time knitting over the current incumbent.

I add two reasons Mr. Romney should not run.

This is a moment in history that demands superior political gifts from one who would govern. Mitt Romney does not have them. He never did. He’s good at life and good at business and good at faith. He is politically clunky, always was and always will be. His clunkiness is seen in the way he leaked his interest in running: to mega-millionaires and billionaires in New York. “Tell your friends.”

Second, Romney enthusiasts like to compare him with Ronald Reagan, who ran three times. This is technically true, though 1968 was sort of a half-run in which Reagan got in late and dropped out early, because he wasn’t ready for the presidency and knew it. But his 1976 run was serious, almost triumphant, and won for him the party’s heart.

The real Romney-Reagan difference is this: There was something known as Reaganism. It was a real movement within the party and then the nation. Reaganism had meaning. You knew what you were voting for. It was a philosophy that people understood. Philosophies are powerful. They carry you, and if they are right and pertinent to the moment they make you inevitable.

There is no such thing as Romneyism and there never will be. Mr. Romney has never encompassed a philosophical world. He has never become the symbol of an attitude toward government, or an approach to freedom or fairness. “Romneyism” is just “Mitt should be president.” That is not enough.

He is a smart, nice and accomplished man who thinks himself clever and politically insightful. He is not and will not become so. He should devote himself to supporting and not attempting to lead the party that has raised him so high.