No President governs alone. No Presidential candidate runs alone. Everyone currently or prospectively in the 2008 race are amalgams of advisors, handlers, experts they have met, and people they have known. The successful candidate will draw upon these people to form their official and kitchen cabinets, their White House staffs, and their administration. It is a proven truism that “people equal policy”.
We should take full advantage of this elongated campaign season to probe beyond the carefully scripted sound bites and explore who has shaped and are shaping these future Presidents. We should also learn how their minds work. How do these candidates process new information and ideas? Reporters should conduct deeper due diligence. The debate moderators should seek to better enlighten the audience with more insightful lines of inquiry.
Imagine a future debate where one or more of the following questions are asked.
“Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?” This means a person or persons they actually knew. Candidates cannot use historical figures. A mentor can be a parent, a teacher, a boss, a friend, or a colleague. This person tangibly helped them discover an insight about themselves or life and possibly aided them in their rise to prominence. This is a critical question. The “kitchen cabinet” around Ronald Reagan helped shape his life from the late 1950’s and aided him while in office.
“On whose advice did you depend on when you faced a difficult decision? Why?” Many may name their spouse, but the “why” may provide insights into both that relationship and how their minds work. Spousal interactions have helped decipher many modern Presidencies. Candidates should explain their management style and cite examples of how it has worked for them.
“Which think tanks or policy forums best reflect your views?” Presidents populate their administrations with policy experts from one or more major think tanks. Knowing which ones have affinity with a given candidate speaks volumes more than a position paper.
Another set of questions should be asked about a candidate’s receptivity to new ideas. One of the biggest handicaps to effective governance is how partisanship and other filters deprive Americans of best practices from across the political spectrum and from beyond our borders.
“Name one program or policy from the [Clinton/Bush] administration that you would embrace and continue during your administration. Why?” This would be asked of opposing party candidates. Republicans would have to pick a Clinton policy; Democrats would have to pick a Bush policy. The Democrats might be further challenged by requiring them to select something besides, “No Child Left Behind”. In every transition, maintaining what is actually working is as important as changing what is not.
“Name one program or policy currently being used in state or local government that should be tried at the national level. Why?” Many Presidential candidates started in state or local government. This gives them an opportunity to reaffirm how our federal system continues to prove its value. State and local governments remain the best test sites for innovation and creativity. These local ideas, once proven, historically gravitate to the national level. The candidates should display their understanding that most good ideas arise outside Washington.
“Name one program or policy currently being used in another country that should be tried in America. Why?” We live in a highly integrated global economy. For America to continue its leadership in the 21st Century it needs to realize that there are 193 other nations that are also grappling with governance. Many of these countries are doing specific things better than the United States. For example, numerous nations are successfully using the Internet to provide expanded and enhanced services to their citizens. A President, and his or her administration, should be fully engaged in identifying and applying these global best practices. Candidates should show how they would tap this global wellspring of human progress.
The 2008 campaign is reinventing the traditional election cycle. We need to reinvent the questions that are asked and the answers that are given. We need to know more about how candidates will think and govern when they become President. Only then will we make an informed choice.