In a political environment of stark partisanship, the understandable tendency in presidential campaigns is to focus on the conflict between candidates. Sometimes these conflicts are around ideas, often they are of a more personal nature. The rapid-fire, continuous loop of digital media amplifies this approach, and obviously voters find it important as well to inform their decisions. But there is another metric for choosing our leaders that can be more predictive of success in the White House, particularly in times of historic challenges that transcend party differences. And that is the combination of leadership skills that make up the alchemy of a transformational presidency.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, acclaimed presidential historian, writes that transformational presidents are “guided by a sense of moral purpose” and possess the capacity to “heal divisions, to bring various parts of the country together, to summon the citizenry to a sense of common purpose … to use their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”
The difference between an historical assessment of what makes a great president and the singular focus on conflict within our modern presidential campaign is striking. Of course, a clash of ideas matters, particularly in a general election. And there are central differences in philosophy that matter a lot, related to fundamental rights and the role of government.
But a critical point here warrants emphasis.
As political scientist Morris Fiorina has demonstrated persuasively, our political system exaggerates these differences on issues and obscures a critically important truth. A majority of Americans, in some cases a strong majority, agree on virtually every one of the so-called “hot button” issues of our time. Why do these areas of common ground not find full expression? We can blame both political parties for this. Decades of gerrymandering to achieve safe districts and obeisance to special interests that hold candidates to a single-issue litmus test for support, have pushed much of the energy of our two major parties in opposite directions. The moderates in both parties, meanwhile, have seen their influence largely limited to a shrinking number of swing districts. In just two decades the number of swing districts plummeted by two-thirds, from 103 to just 35. So while political differences matter in an election, those differences have been exaggerated to the point of distortion.
And that has crowded out the other essential question beyond where one fits on the ideological spectrum: The question of what type of leader do we want exercising the extraordinary powers of the modern presidency.
What would a presidential campaign that gives greater weight to a candidate’s leadership profile look like? How would it be different?
The campaign would include an additional lens through which the candidates were assessed, with a different set of questions presented by voters, political parties, civic organizations and the media.
The upcoming Democratic presidential debates in Miami, which are expected to attract 15 million viewers, would be a perfect opportunity to introduce some critical questions about presidential leadership. A few suggestions:
-What in your record has demonstrated your capacity to bring people together, even when they held deeply conflicting points of view, toward a common goal or purpose?
-Can you share examples of when you have healed divisions?
-Have you, in a leadership position, faced a great tragedy, crisis or natural disaster and what did you do, how did you respond and how did you improve the situation?
-What examples in your life and career can you share where you have enlarged the lives and opportunities of others, and can you describe the specific outcomes of those efforts?
Questions like these can add shape to our political dialogue and presidential campaigns. These questions of presidential leadership must be presented with the same frequency, intensity and coverage as the more prevalent questions designed to drive conflict between candidates. They will not replace the “horse race” and “who tweeted what about whom” coverage, nor should they. Those issue contrasts and skirmishes are an important part of a political campaign too. Politics in a democracy should be an open exchange of ideas with the inevitable punching and counter-punching, usually messy and often aggressive.
We can expand and build on this adrenaline- and conflict-driven coverage to give voters a fuller and more complete picture of the candidates. We can bring some much-needed focus to a profoundly important question: Which candidate possesses the essential qualities of presidential leadership to occupy the most powerful position in the world?
Shepard Nevel, who grew up in Miami, is the CEO of a health technology startup and is a senior policy advisor to former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.