My heart leaped up when I beheld the following headline in this morning’s (London) Daily Telegraph:“Michael Gove is too good to be our next Prime Minister.” Here at last, I thought, I had found in the article’s author, Sarah Arnold, someone who shares my suspicion that good character is but a poor qualification for national leadership—particularly when the accolade of possessing such a character is bestowed by the media. Alas! It turned out that Ms. Arnold only meant that Mr. Gove was doing such a bang-up job as environment secretary under Mrs. May’s government that she was loath to see him translated to the top job. Not only that, but he also qualified as “good” in her book mainly by interesting himself in the agenda of the “climate change” lobby—the short route to political sainthood in the media’s eyes.
Of course I should have realized it to be a vain hope that even (perhaps especially) a “conservative” newspaper, American or British, would ever be found putting “character” or “principle” in their political places—which, in my view, are some way below the top of the list of desirable qualities in a national leader. In yesterday’s Times of London the former Conservative Member of Parliament Matthew Parris wrote as follows about Mr. Gove’s chief rival for the top job:
What weasels these Tory MPs are. More than three years ago I wrote an attack on the character and competence of Boris Johnson for The Times. I received messages, verbal and electronic, from many of his colleagues, congratulating me on putting into print what everyone knew. Some messages were expressed in more violent language than my own column. Today I observe the growing list of Tory MPs declaring support for his campaign to be prime minister. First: I will never break confidences once reposed in me. Second: I cannot believe how many of those listed were lining up to damn him only a few years ago.
Of course it never occurred to Mr. Parris to think that maybe his former colleagues are not weasels, but merely recognize that “character” (if not competence) is an overrated qualification for leadership.
These thoughts were in my mind when I turned to the New York Times today and read that “Joe Biden Still Backs Hyde Amendment, Which Bans Federal Funds for Abortions.” In other words, Sleepy Joe not only ratted, he re-ratted—as Churchill said of himself, thus making a joke of his own lack of “character” as the world saw it. So then, I suppose we must ask ourselves, is Joe Biden just bad enough to be president? Well, no one knows in any given instance how voters will react to what since Churchill’s time we have come to call by the trivializing name of flip-flopping. There is evidence both ways. I can only say that, for me, the flopping back only makes the original flipping seem worse, although he now professes to hold the view of the Hyde amendment that I prefer.
This is not because of the “character” question but because, in the context of Mr. Biden’s career of bending to the ideological winds and claiming others’ ideas as his own, the flop seems quite as calculated as the flip. The most recent calculation appears to be that people will give him credit for “principle”—that politically useless but rhetorically valuable property perpetually said to be in short supply however frequently people appeal to it—if he goes back to his original position on the Hyde amendment. Of course he must know that switching back will do him no good with the party’s militant feminists, but what he stood to gain on the party’s right might outweigh what he lost on the left, whose candidate he was never going to be anyway. See, for instance, Danielle Campoamor in today’s Washington Post, who writes that “Joe Biden’s support of the Hyde Amendment makes him unfit to lead.”
Not, of course, that she necessarily thought him any more fit to lead when he briefly seemed to have opposed the Amendment. Still, her own principles, as is so often the case when they are dragged into public view, appear to be reducible to one, which is that the “choice” to end a pregnancy by abortion must never be interfered with—must, indeed, be subsidized by taxpayers. No doubt she is sincere and unalterable in this belief, as policy advocates generally are. Politics, however, is a dirty and largely unprincipled business, whatever politicians may say, and flip-flopping is sometimes necessary and even laudable. All the same, I think that most people can tell when there is good reason for the change—and when it is just for the sake of telling people what the politician thinks they want to hear.