The Atlantic’s trove of internal memos from Hilary Clinton’s campaign is fascinating reading if you are interested in strategy, positioning and messaging. The accompanying analysis puts the documents into the context of events as they unfolded. It highlights the zero-sum nature of politics that magnifies errors due to the binary outcomes.
Hilary explicitly ran on the notion she was ready to be President “from Day One”, a position presumably grounded in a belief about her qualifications, both absolute and especially relative to her competitors. But the evidence suggests she didn’t do a very good job managing her own campaign. In fact, after you read the Atlantic piece, you’ll conclude she did a pretty poor job. She ducked hard decisions, ignored or failed to understand critical issues like the rules for delegate allocation, couldn’t or wouldn’t control a staff crippled by divisive infighting and avoided until too late difficult but necessary personnel decisions.
Given we have two more Senators still vying to be President, there is a question of whether being Senator is even remotely good preparation to be President. There is a big difference between taking principled positions in “the world’s greatest deliberative body” and actually being an executive. Like many stereotypes, “Senator Blowhard” has a firm grounding in reality.
Senate is structured to drive mean reversion. It requires a higher degree of agreement to get anything done than the House. The minority has great power and even a single member can put a “hold” on various actions. Six year terms insulate Senators from the winds of public opinion. Your (negative) power actually grows the further you are from the center of opinion in the Senate. Meanwhile, a President actually has to get things done, as opposed to the “advise and consent” role of the Senate.
The electorate seems to understand being Senator requires a different skill set than the Presidency as evidenced by how few sitting Senators have become President. That, of course, doesn’t stop a half dozen or more supremely self-confident Senators from throwing their hats in the ring on behalf of an insufficiently grateful country every four years.
Management skills matter. George W. Bush’s presidency could be politely characterized as suffering from some “managerial lapses”, despite a much-touted MBA (perhaps the lapses are not such a surprise…) and executive experience as governor of Texas. Managing any organization with millions of employees requires skills, but the President also steers the world’s most powerful nation, with implications for the whole planet.
Our remaining two Senatorial candidates have no significant executive experience. Just looking at them as legislators, McCain has a history of being an outsider and “maverick” even by Senate standards while Obama’s legislative accomplishments are thin at best. Managing a Senate office is not quite the same as running the whole Federal government.
Both are also running as change agents. And change agents they will be, just not in the way they expect. Sure, they have their simultaneously far-reaching yet ambiguous campaign promises, but more important is their ability to react to and deal with surprises. Once you’re in office, stuff happens and it lands in your Presidential lap. Dealing with change is a fundamental executive task. The Presidency is the ultimate Black Swan job. Administrations have a tendency to end up on very different paths than they thought they would pursue. Think about Clinton pre-1994 versus post-1994 or Bush the younger pre-9/11 versus post-9/11 as recent examples.
Change is coming fast and furious in a turbulent world. Foreign affairs matter again, and not just terrorism. Geopolitics are in the midst of a significant realignment. New powers are rising. The world economic system is restructuring in fundamental ways. Traditional policy levers don’t work any work. And the pace of this change will probably increase in coming years.
In order to better gauge the fitness of our candidates to manage the challenges of today’s world, I propose we augment the debates and their pre-packaged sound bites with something the American electorate understands: a reality game show. I’m torn between calling it American Crisis, Survivor: The Presidency or Who Wants To Be President? but the idea would be to see how the candidates deal with a crisis. Lets drop an unexpected event on them on live television and see how they do: economic meltdown, terrorist strike, foreign invasion, natural disaster, national tragedy, extraterrestrial contact, an outbreak of bipartisanship, whatever.
Give each of them a staff they don’t know (they don’t get to bring their usual handlers, although we should probably have other events to evaluate their staffs’ qualifications given the degree to which they end up running the show) who will provide the facts as the event unfolds. A good executive has the ability to take over a new organization. The staff will propose various options for dealing with the crisis. Lets see what principles the candidates apply, how they listen, what they decide is and isn’t important, how they deal with conflicting views from their staff, how they make decisions under uncertainty and generally how they perform under stress. Naturally, the crisis would be a messy, real-world situation with no clear-cut answers and involve hard trade-offs.
You do a couple elimination rounds and weed out the also-rans (probably mostly Senators). Candidates get one “lifeline” call to a randomly selected household for common-sense advice and insight from the common American. Sell sponsorships and product placement to help reduce the Federal deficit (“the situation room’s live footage from the ongoing crisis in West Eastbekistan brought to you tonight by Samsung…” and “this cease fire brought to you by GE, who bring good things to life…”). The electorate can vote via text message. Nielsen counts the votes. Bet it gets better ratings than the debates. Lets see how Senators Blowhard do (beyond the press conference).