There’s been a lot of coverage of Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate particularly focused on who did well and who did not; who helped and who hurt their prospects of securing the nomination. As a general matter, I thought the debate was superbly moderated, allowing some important and interesting exchanges among the candidates to occur on a range of economic and national security issues.

There is one exchange, in particular, I wanted to focus on, and it occurred in the context of Governor John Kasich and Senator Ted Cruz talking about bank bailouts. Senator Cruz said he would not bail out the banks if they were in danger of going under, which elicited this response from Governor Kasich:

That’s the difference of being an executive. And let me just explain: when a bank is ready to go under, and depositors are getting ready to lose their life savings, you just don’t say we believe in philosophical concerns. You know what an executive has to decide? When there’s a water crisis, how do we get water to the city? When there’s a school shooting, how do you get there and help heal a community? When there are financial crisis, or a crisis with ebola, you got to go there and try to fix it.

Philosophy doesn’t work when you run something. And I gotta tell you, on-the-job training for president of the United States doesn’t work. We’ve done it for 8 years, — and almost 8 years now. It does not work. We need an executive who’s been tried, has been tested, and judge the decisions that that executive makes. [emphasis added]

There are two elements to what Governor Kasich said, one I’m sympathetic to and one from which I dissent.

I agree with Governor Kasich that politicians aren’t philosophers and governing shouldn’t be done by mechanically imposing philosophical beliefs on problems, without regard to circumstances and consequences. For example, you might believe as a general principle that banks should not be bailed out – but if not bailing them out would trigger (or accelerate) a financial crisis, in which massive economic dislocation would occur, prudence would argue for bailing out the banks, however distasteful that may be. As Alan Ryan, a professor of political theory at Oxford, has written in his book On Aristotle: Saving Politics from Philosophy, “Political wisdom cannot aspire to the precision of geometry, and must not pretend to… in ethics and politics we seek the truth for the sake of knowing what to do. They are practical disciplines.” That is, I think, what Mr. Kasich was getting at, and it’s an important insight.

However, for him to go several steps beyond that and to declare that philosophy doesn’t work when you run something is something of a problem. (Governor Kasich may well have used imprecise words in an effort to amplify his earlier point; such things happen in the midst of an intense debate.) Politics has to be grounded in a theory of human nature and how the world works. The practice of politics, like the practice of life, needs to be guided by philosophical assumptions. It needs to provide a framework for the laws that we pass and how we seek to advance, even imperfectly, justice and human flourishing. Political wisdom involves making the right, practical choices in a broken world.

In his marvelous interview with Mark Blitz, professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, Bill Kristol invoked the metaphor of trying to steer a ship toward a goal, sometimes zigging and sometimes zagging, depending on the circumstances. The goal isn’t arbitrary, but neither is there a single, unchanging course on how to arrive at it. “Good judgment, prudence, as one calls it, practical wisdom, combined with a real understanding and holding your understanding in the direction of the goal that you would like to reach, that’s the central matter,” Professor Blitz says. “And I think it is what leads people to be successful in the serious sense in Washington, not just personally successful, but to advance the level of freedom and justice in the country.”

Holding those two things together at once – fidelity to the right political philosophy and the flexible application of that philosophy to shifting circumstance – is a rare and precious thing to find in a political leader. As Republicans consider who the nominee of their party ought to be, they might reflect carefully on who, in the current field, most possesses that quality, which separates mere politicians from statesmen.

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