This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable exploring the GOP primary field.
“Some men look at things the way they are and ask why. I dream of things that are not and ask why not.” These words of Robert Kennedy’s are steeped in Democratic tradition. And yet today many writers, and a growing chorus of citizens, are beginning to question whether President Obama has assumed the odd posture of a Democrat who asks “Why?”
By hallowed definition, that should leave the field wide open for a visionary leader who asks “Why not?” That is to say, it leaves the field open for someone who can do what Washington Post Columnist Steven Pearlstein recently labeled Apple’s Steve Jobs as brilliant at doing, namely, “redefining the competition by redefining the problem.” In that view, leadership involves changing the terms of the debate—something politicians might refer to as ensuring that the game is played on your turf, not on the other guy's.
At this point in time, the one open place to find such new leadership would be the Republican field—but while there may be such visionaries among them, for Republicans as for Democrats that field is strewn with systemic obstacles to be overcome. Obstacles that can make a blur of the 'vision thing.'
These days, that is, instead of emulating Steve Jobs, both parties do politics reactively. We don't redefine problems, we poll-test them. We don't debate, we denounce. We don't appeal on the basis of ideas, we appeal on the basis of outrage. We don't inform, we incite.
The systemic reasons for this are many. To start, we have primaries that attract only the activist, and often ideologically rigid, party base. Political parties have come to be seen as cliquish, exclusive preserves open only to the ‘pure’ and decidedly not open to compromise. We also have an ideologically polarized media world, turned upside-down—in which cable and broadcast personalities, who used to echo the political leadership they support, are now themselves echoed by that 'leadership'.
And there are numerous more ways in which the institutions of political parties have been weakened and party politics itself balkanized. These would have to include campaign finance, where extraordinary amounts of money go to entities that by law must be independent from (and uncoordinated with) candidates, party organizations and campaigns.
We should also include here the constitutionally mandated redistricting process that's been distorted. In far too many states, the two parties engage in an unholy alliance to protect their incumbents and avoid the rigors of political contest. And in many other states, one-party dominance is sufficient by itself to protect incumbents. In either case, the result is the same: less dialogue, less comity, less listening, and less thoughtful and respectful partisanship. If candidates need only talk to their most fervent supporters and needn't listen to others—like, for example, people in the center or from the other party—then the political divide in America only deepens.
I cling to the faith that, while there are obvious political divisions among us, it remains true that the American people are less divided than their politics are. A prime article of that faith is this: Although the electorate is divided more or less evenly, that is very different, importantly different, from today's politics and politicians that seem divided deeply.
To narrow that divide in such challenged times as these, there's no substitute for seriousness. But here, the late Pat Moynihan's formulation is important. About what currently passes for debate he would say, “You're either serious about something, or you're serious about something else.” Too many who wish to be seen as serious about policy or problem-solving are in fact serious about something else—reelection or power.
As a consequence, the typical American might be forgiven for thinking that for politicians today the sole purpose of a political party is to get power; and the sole purpose of power is to keep it.
So, what to get serious about? It begins with the recognition that by far our biggest deficit, bigger even than our multi-trillion-dollar fiscal shortfall, is a trust deficit. To be sure, government isn't much trusted (neither the president nor the Congress), but name an institution in America these days that is. To underscore how long I've been in or around this business of politics: 33 years ago I could write, and mean, that political parties have been “credible communicators of political information”.
Who fills that role today? Who today, on any political topic, communicates credibly across the current political divide? Who has earned our trust? Tell me. It might affect my vote.
Bill Brock is a former Republican senator from Tennessee and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He also served as U.S. trade representative and U.S. secretary of labor under President Reagan.
Donald F. Kettl: Somewhere between Obama and the political earth’s edge
Jena McGregor: Are so many GOP debates just a setup for letdown?