There is an arresting moment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in which Jobs speaks at length about his philosophy of business. He’s at the end of his life and is summing things up. His mission, he says, was plain: to “build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.” Then he turned to the rise and fall of various businesses. He has a theory about “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.
Jobs’s theory of decline was elegant and simple as an iPad, and when I asked business leaders about it the past few weeks, they agreed, some with the kind of engagement that suggested maybe their own companies had experienced such troubles.
The theory applies also to our politics. America is in political decline in part because we’ve elevated salesmen—people good on the hustings and good in the room, facile creatures with good people skills—above people who love the product, which is sound and coherent government—”good government,” as they used to say. To make that product you need a certain depth of experience. You need to know the facts, the history, how the system works, what the people want, what the moment demands.
You might say the rise of Barack Obama was the triumph of a certain sort of salesman. He didn’t know the product, but he was good at selling an image of the product, at least for a while. In time even his salesmanship came to seem hollow. One of the most penetrating criticisms of Mr. Obama came again from Jobs, who supported him but was frustrated by him. He met with the president last year and urged him to move forward on visas for foreign students who earned an engineering degree in the U.S. Mr. Obama blandly replied that this was covered in his comprehensive immigration bill, which Republicans were holding up. Jobs told Mr. Isaacson: “The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done.”
He does do that a lot. Nothing is ever shovel-ready with him. But leaders tell us how things will get done, how we can move forward. They can tease a small element out of a large bill, and get it passed.
Mr. Obama is a very dignified and even somber man, but he never seems to get the seriousness of the moment, the sense that we’re in a gathering crisis.
But then a lot of his would-be contenders seem unserious and unresponsive, don’t they? Which gets us briefly to Herman Cain, who thought he was engaged in a yearlong branding experiment and wound up a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination.
Mr. Cain’s famous version of the brain freeze this week wasn’t really that, a brain freeze. It was more like a public service. Because he was showing us a candidate for the presidency of the United States desperately trying to retrieve a soundbite and not even trying to hide the fact that he was trying to retrieve a soundbite. Because we’re kind of all in on the game, and it is a game, right?
The reporter asked him if he agreed, in retrospect, with President Obama’s decisions on Libya. Mr. Cain said, “OK, Libya.” Ten seconds of now famous silence ensued. Then: “I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reasons.” Another pause, and then: “Um, no, that’s a different one.”
He was saying: That’s a different soundbite.
Later, with an almost beautiful defiance, Mr. Cain told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “I’m not supposed to know anything about foreign policy.” That’s what staffers are for. “I want to talk to commanders on the ground. Because you run for president [people say] you need to have the answer. No you don’t! No you don’t!”
Yes you do. It was as if history itself were unknown to him, as if Harry Truman told Douglas MacArthur, “Do what you want, cross the Yalu, but remember to tell me if we invade China.”
As for the commanders on the ground, Mr. Cain clearly doesn’t know something crucially important about modern American generals: that they tend to be the last to want to go to war and the last to want to leave. They’re the last to want to go to war because they know what war is—chaos, destruction, always “a close-run thing.” And they know the politicians who direct them to go to war often don’t know this, or know it fully. But once action has been taken—once they’ve fought, seen their men die, planned, executed, taken and held territory—generals tend to counsel against leaving. Because they’ve worked with the good guys and seen the bad guys, and know what they’ll do on our departure.
A candidate for president ought to be at least aware of this dynamic, and many other dynamics, too. To know little and to be proud of knowing little is disrespectful of the democratic process, and of the moment we’re in.
The purpose here isn’t to slam Mr. Cain but to point out that when Republicans talk like this—no, when GOP voters cheer Republicans who talk like this—it leads their opponents to smile in smug satisfaction.
A central line of Democratic attack against Republicans is that they’re not really for anything, they just hate government. That, Democrats say, is why Republicans speak so disrespectfully of government as an institution, that’s why they blithely dismiss the baseline requirements of a public office, as Mr. Cain does.
The charge that Republicans just hate government carries other implications—that they’re stupid, that they’re haters by nature, that they’re cynical and merely strategic, that they enjoy having phantom foes around whom to coalesce, like cavemen warming themselves around a fire.
Republicans don’t hate government, but they’re alive to what human beings are tempted and even inclined to do with governmental power, which is abuse it. And so they want that power limited. It’s not really that complicated. Democrats may try to paint it one way, but when they do, Republicans shouldn’t help them. They should show respect for the moment. They shouldn’t be unserious.