John McCain, and Barack Obama By Peter S. Adler, President & CEO
The Keystone Center
The U.S. presidential run-up is a time to think about politics, conflict and leadership. The collective challenges we face -- balancing freedom and security, maintaining economic and environmental sustainability, educating our young people, and assuring the health of those who cannot take care of themselves -- crisscross all sorts of historic borders, jurisdictions, and purviews. Making headway on these challenges will necessarily be a team sport.
How will Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama approach them? Imagine for a moment that we could engage all three candidates in an extended dialogue that goes beyond the sound bites and platform promises we have grown too accustomed to. Here is what I would ask:
You’re History of Bringing People Together. Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama, tell us about one or more specific instances in which you were the catalyst that brought warring factions together to create a new political arrangement. What did you do and what was the result?
(Why this question: We know a lot about the candidates’ temperaments and general positions and have also heard a lot of discussion and accusations about “experience.” It would be valuable to get more depth and specificity on their actual history of bringing people together.)
Your Big Issues and Approaches to Bipartisan Alliances. Everyone talks about bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle.” Name three issues where you think this will be possible during your first term and tell us why you are optimistic you will succeed.
(Why this question: All three candidates have said they will try to bring Democrats and Republicans together in new ways. It would be good to know why each thinks he or she has a shot at doing that. And on what issues: immigration? Iraq? greenhouse gas reductions?)
Standing Firm v. Compromising. On the three issues that are at the top of your agenda, how will you decide when to take a stand and when to negotiate? If you can’t get everything you want, what considerations will lead you to either compromise or not?
(Why this question: Every leader has to manage the inherent tensions between taking competitive, cooperative, moral, or pragmatic stands. Usually, we can see these in historical hindsight but it would be helpful to hear where they intend to draw the line and where there might be gives and takes.)
Countries At Odds With the U.S. What specifically will you do differently from your predecessors regarding Pakistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela?
(Why this question: America’s relationships with all of the above countries are tenuous and frayed, often for different reasons. Each, however, represents a potential geo-political hotspot. It would be helpful to hear how each candidate would approach the circumstances surrounding each relationship.)
Middle East. Describe for us what kind of arrangements you think can be brokered between (a) Palestine and Israel and (b) the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds? Tell us what your strategies will be in both of these circumstances.
(Why this question: These are America’s current hotspots, places with active, open, and ongoing armed conflict. Both situations cry out for adroit diplomacy and new negotiation strategies. Whoever becomes president cannot avoid these issues. It would be nice to have greater insight into an fresh thinking the candidiates might bring to their office.)
Your Prevailing Impulse. CEOs lead in different ways. Some are strategists. Others focus on hiring and firing senior talent. Still others manage by the numbers. A few spur technical innovations and some are turn around specialists. Please resist the temptation to tell us you are everything and tell us which style you favor and why you are the right person at the right time.
(Why this question: These five leadership styles were identified in a 1990 study called “The Ways CEOs Lead” by Charles Farkas and Suzy Wetlaufer in the Harvard Business Review. No leader is good at all of these but usually one style predominates. As voters, one of our challenges is to understand and make a good match between what the candidates offer and what the times require.)
Intellectual Flexibility. Name a major public policy issue about which you've changed your mind in the last fifteen years. Tell us what caused you to shift your views and what happened afterwards.
(Why this question: Even though times and conditions change, the punditocracy seems to place great stock in political consistency. An overriding emphasis on consistency seems to make otherwise smart people unwilling to be accused of "flip-flopping" on critical issues. It would be valuable for voters to really understand how changing conditions or new information caused candidates to shift their positions and hear how they handled the inevitable aftermath.)
Changing Foreign Policy Frames. In what ways do you think America should change its role in the world and how will you try to mobilize Americans to support such a shift?
(Why this question: The last six years have been dominated by an American foreign policy based on American exceptionalism and unilateralism. While foreign policy has specifically been dominated by the "war on terror," the world-wide fluctuations in stock markets, the obvious impacts of global climate change, and the tides of refugees are among the reminders of our international interdependence and the need to engage in more effective joint actions with other nations. Voters could use some straightforward talk on each candidate’s views and where they may take the nation.)
Mistakes. What mistake made by previous presidents are you most eager to avoid?
Why this question: This question will predictably have McCain pointing his finger at the mistakes of previous Democratic presidents like Jimmy Carter and Obama and Clinton waggling their fingers at George Bush. Nonetheless, it would be useful to probe how each might seize some future similar circumstance and do things different.
The 3 am Call. When the crisis call really comes at 3am, who will you call for advice and counsel before deciding what to do? In a crisis, who do you rely on for guidance?
(Why this question: This question is a test of how vulnerable each candidate is to “group think.” Lincoln invited his political opponents into his cabinet to create a “team of rivals.” Kennedy, having learned the hard way at Bay of Pigs, created a special Executive Committee (“The ExComm”) composed of hawks and doves during the Cuba Missile Crisis. He wanted both sets of views. It would be good to get an early glimpse of how likely each candidate is to have advisers in place who will challenge his or her thinking rather than being predictable toadies.)
Peter S. Adler is President and CEO of The Keystone Center and the author of Eye-of-the-Storm Leadership: 150 Ideas, Stories, Quotes and Exercises on the Art and Politics of Managing Human Conflicts now available at www.eyeofthestormleadership.com.