Matt is a great bartender at one of my favorite brewpubs. One reason I like him is that he is very well informed on many things. He’s liberal and I’m conservative and it makes for great discussions (as I’ve said before, I respect someone who disagrees with me and is well informed more than someone who agrees with me and doesn’t know why).
Yesterday he and I were commiserating about the issues of this presidential campaign. “Why is it,” Matt asked, “we’re not hearing any candidates talk about $100+ barrel oil. The Saudis are supposed to be our friends, but they’re keeping the price of oil higher than market supply and demand ought to dictate.”
To which I responded, “For the same reason we’re not hearing much about Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security or border security. The candidates aren’t talking about what we need to hear; they’re talking about what they think voters want to hear.”
Clinton and Obama talk about uninsured health coverage like it was the most pressing issue facing our country. I know it is important, especially to people who don’t have coverage, but far more people (including those with health insurance) will be affected by social security and border security in the very near future.
Obama talks about penalizing companies who take jobs offshore and shows a dire lack of understanding business reality. Jobs are migrating to areas of the world where they can be done most cost-effectively. Penalizing companies for being efficient is stupid and won’t, despite Obama’s good intentions, keep or create jobs. Of course if you’re unemployed and want a scapegoat, Obama’s rhetoric is appealing.
McCain talks about the economy and Iraq, two important issues to be sure. Yet again, why aren’t we hearing about much else? Because each candidate is pandering to their constituency. Too many issues would confuse voters, and talking about scary or unpopular issues would alienate them.
The political model of telling people what they want to hear is broken and bad for everyone. The catch is that if you tell people what they need to hear–even if you do it well–you might not get elected.
Won’t the next president address these “other issues” I’m suggesting? Ideally he or she will; the rub is that the president who wins will be beholden first and foremost to the issues of their platform, whether or not those are the most important issues. Voters will say, “We put you in office, now give us what you promised.”
So the other issues become the monster in the closet that gets attention only after it breaks down the closet door and attacks. Then we move from “leadership by popular issue” to “leadership by crisis.”
And it stinks. And I don’t have any easy answer for fixing American politics. Smarter people than me have tried.
The best I’m hoping for is to sound a warning for leaders outside of politics who fall into similar traps. In the also imperfect world of non-political organizations, results usually count far more than popularity. Yet I’ve seen too many instances of “leadership by popular issue” and “leadership by crisis.” Business and other types of organizations aren’t immune from the same problem as politics.
If you’re a leader, be courageous enough to address needs, and not just wants. Don’t wait for a crisis that could have been avoided to shape your legacy.