Today’s blog is co-authored by Kathleen Schafer and Bill Parent, Lecturer in Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
When two recovering political operatives get together it no surprise that even pop culture takes on an election year patina. Recently over coffee our conversation turned to the film, Sully. Neither of us had seen it. We both had thought we wanted to, but probably wouldn’t. Maybe it’s because as we are getting closer to this bizarre election, we already have too much of that sickening, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson” ball in our throats.
We teach, write, and think about leadership and how our governmental bodies can best achieve their goals. We’re optimists. We tend to the opportunities and achievements side of politics and governing, focusing on how best to allow Americans pursuit of happiness.
But this day was different. Like many Americans we were finding little to inspire us in the 2016 elections, particularly in the Presidential race. Neither party’s candidate is widely respected by their base, let alone the other’s supporters. It has become a race to the bottom with the more “reasonable” candidate calling the other’s supporters deplorable for their racist, sexist, and xenophobic impulses while many of them proudly embrace the label. Vulgar and authoritarian impulses have been given agency and legitimacy in the public square. Traditional Republicans are at a loss to explain their candidate and how he got there, while the Democratic candidate seems unable to connect with progressives, labor, and young voters and move beyond the stigma of being dishonest if not outright deceitful.
We have a bit more fun with the Sully metaphor. Yes, this election has us feeling like we’re blowing up our yellow life vests on a crippled jet blowing headed into a river. Is that smoke coming out of the wings of democracy? Can we trust the pilot to land safely? Will the passengers that want us to go down in flames carry the day?
The instrument panel has been lighting up with pre-flight warnings for years. In 2000, we had a presidential election acrimoniously decided by the Supreme Court. Abrasive rhetoric has become the norm as political loyalists have raced to extremes, demonized their opponents and even shut down the government rather than compromise. The traditional tools and technologies of elections, the two party system and a national news media, seem outdated and weak. And, the latest and maybe most dangerous warning light, comes as people on both sides seem waiting and ready to trash the integrity and the legitimacy of the election itself if their side loses, blaming either voter suppression or fraudulently increasing the voting rolls.
With the storm bearing down on us, what can we do? We started by splitting biscotti and agreeing that Hillary Clinton has an opportunity to begin her presidency in a shockingly honest and candid way—by actually leading.
She can start in the third presidential debate and continue in the closing weeks of the campaign by giving voter a reason to vote for her rather than against her opponent. We’ve known many campaigns and, by far, the most difficult ones to win are those when the key message is built around “don’t choose my opponent.”
Why don’t we feel there is a reason to feel good about a pro-Hillary vote? Perhaps because she rarely offers one. Instead she offers a litany of offices held and performance measure improvements in immigration, health care, education, infrastructure, and public health. All good, but where leadership is needed right now is in resolving the dysfunction of a deeply divided country, whose partisan political realities are as different as day and night, country and city, or getting ahead and falling behind.
Leadership is proclaiming that our country has to take a good look at this mess of an election and commit ourselves to reforms aimed at restoring balance, trust, and democratic vibrancy to the political system. California did that after the debacle of a recall election that resulted in an Arnold Schwarzenegger governorship. Its politics and governing are working better than they have in generations, in large part because our citizens understood the perils of infighting and have come together to move forward on policies that serve the large center of the population.
Which is why with a victory on election night as the potential high point of her entire Presidency, her best hope is to be aspirational and audacious. For instance, how about the life-long children’s advocate present as the core value of her presidency, the question she will ask before every fiscal, monetary, domestic and international decision: What does this policy do to uplift and support children and their future security and prosperity? It is that kind of bold thinking that will break us free from the current death spiral. By bringing people from across the political spectrum together around values and issues of agreement, we can begin to find common ground that has been blood-soaked in our on-going political war.
Perhaps Clinton could pose a nonpartisan challenge to both parties, calling on them to revitalize our democracy by setting clear, mutual goals at the outset of each Congress, and not simply deferring to a camera-ready State of Union to provide political fodder. Or she could push for nonpartisan reforms aimed at making it more attractive and affordable for young people to run for public office.
For the rabid politicos, these propositions may seem like heresy—after all, isn’t the goal of politics to win power, to have control and to be able to dominate the other side? Reflecting on own evolution from politics to leadership, we say ‘no.’ A large reason for this nauseating election season is that too many inside the beltway are mired in the pursuit of the campaign win instead of focusing on a more lasting victory, the creation of a civil society where tolerance, choice and thriving are the qualities that permeate our communities.
A Clinton Presidency 2.0 must be different from her husband’s. The cost to her political career has been clear as she has capitulated to politicking Bill-style instead of bolding stepping out as her own person. It is the underlying reason she continues to be off-key on the stump, she has failed to trust herself as being desirable enough in her own right. For Hillary Clinton to be a successful President, it is imperative that she boldly brings forward the leader that she is and not the one her handlers suggest she present.
If a President Hillary Clinton is going to find any joy let alone success in her term it will only come from being bold, breaking the mold of political expediency and bringing the country back to a place of common understandings and respect for differences. If Clinton governs like she is campaigning, as just another politician intent on winning power, her term will be fraught with conflict, investigations, allegations and misery. No one wants that. But the only way out is for the likely winner of this election to rise above the current behavior and live a bold new vision of what it means to be a political leader, starting with the last debate.
And if not, well, what do you think of a Tom Hanks-Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ticket in 2020?