Let me start with another question: What is a Leader? A leader isn’t merely one who is in charge; if that were the case then every person who found him or herself in a position of authority would be a leader. In fact, we know that there are plenty of people in such positions who couldn’t lead a dog to a bone with a rope. They get their authority from an appointment or a commission, not by virtue of their ability to think creatively, to persevere, or to persuade others to follow them.
The best known and most basic component of leadership is the ability to persuade others, to get people to do things under command that they wouldn’t do spontaneously on their own. I’ll call this quality charisma. But there are other aspects of leadership that tend to get short shrift.
Perseverance, the ability to hang in there when the going gets tough, is the second important element of the leadership package. One who sticks with a job when it’s difficult or unpopular will rightly receive extra credit when the job is finished and the followers are reaping the benefits.
Ann Clemmer, a political science instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, sees another aspect of leadership as acting on one’s own initiative, absent of outside instruction or support. Describing an admired leader she says, “I think he did a lot just on his own — really on his own counsel. And in that regard I think you have to say he was a leader.” In politics it’s generally understood that there are two sides to every argument: the majority’s and the opposition’s. But occasionally an original thinker comes up with their own point of view and begins acting on their own initiative. I’m going to refer to this creative independence as vision, and vision is the third major factor of leadership.
Is America ready for robust leadership? I mean the kind of leadership that combines all three of these important elements (Charisma, Perseverance, Vision) into one package.
Institutionally, probably not. Charisma is valued and perseverance is respected, but vision really isn’t good strategy from a competitive point of view. In the party selection process an opponent can merely point out that some aspect of the candidate’s position is unorthodox – orthodoxy is considered a political virtue – and thereby discredit him.
But the good news is that on a grassroots basis, Americans have always been open to such leadership. The elite have considerable influence, particularly in matters where knowledge and information are scarce, but the people believe their own eyes and ears when they have the opportunity to use them. They have this opportunity when a politician hits the scene with the ability to talk directly to the people, appealing to what they know and feel, and making the elites impotent. A politician who is adept at this type of campaigning is often referred to as a populist, because of their ability to appeal to the masses rather than the ostensible leadership.
Who is there in the current field of major party candidates for President of the United States who fits this mold? A brief analysis of the major candidates follows. (Democrats first, Republicans to follow, in alphabetical order within their own subset)
Joe Biden – Biden is the type of politician who needs to constantly promote himself. The reason? He lacks the charisma that is necessary to lead effectively, so he resorts to chest-pounding bravado. It isn’t working.
Hillary Clinton – Clinton is the ultimate “establishment” candidate; she’s already spent eight years in the White House, she’s completely orthodox on nearly every issue, and she panders tirelessly to her party’s base. The important thing is that it’s working for her. She is a leader, if only because people want to follow her.
Christopher Dodd – Dodd has the great confidence that is both a product and a wellspring of personal charisma, but does anyone want to follow him anywhere?
John Edwards – Edwards is a good looking, smooth talking, card carrying people pleaser. Whether he has followers should depend on more than his hair, but for the most part it doesn’t. People who support Edwards could be supporting anyone, but it seems to me that they choose him because his superficials make the rest of his package more palatable.
Mike Gravel – Gravel is in it for himself. As far as I can tell he’s only running because it’s the only way he could scrape together some money and do some traveling in his retirement. If you tried to follow Gravel, you would end up at the KOA.
Dennis Kucinich – Kucinish’s unorthodox political positions aren’t evidence of leadership as much as proof of weirdness. The next voter who is tempted to follow Kucinich may be the first.
Barak Obama – Obama has some very tangible advantages over his competition. Youthfulness, energy, good looks…and people do want to follow Obama. His political positions are relatively ordinary and it’s unclear whether he has the attribute of perseverence, given his brief and charmed political career. Stay tuned, because he may turn out to be the real deal.
Bill Richardson – Richardson seems like a very decent and sincere fellow, but people just aren’t turned on by him. There’s no charisma, so perseverance and vision don’t really matter.
Rudy Giuliani – Here’s a guy who has charisma in spades, admirable perseverance, and sports all kinds of unorthodox positions. Unfortunately for Giuliani, he probably won’t be the first Flatbush Italian to be President because there’s just too much departure from the Republican platform. The popular criticism is true: he’s too similar to the Democrats to run against them effectively.
Mike Huckabee – Huckabee’s campaign has caught fire because of two important qualities: first, people like him and want to line up behind him. Second, he’s a creative leader who is willing to depart from strict orthodoxy in service of his party’s ideals. Whether he has perseverance to match will be revealed by the long and difficult road of the campaign.
Duncan Hunter – Hunter lacks popular appeal, and as with Richardson (above) this makes his other qualities, positive or negative, irrelevant.
John McCain – McCain’s popularity may be spent, and it’s a shame because he has proved his perseverance and virtuous unorthodoxy time and again. McCain’s situation is ironic because he had such widespread popular appeal back in 2000, but his frequent minor departures from the party’s strictest doctrines have cost him that popularity.
Ron Paul – This man seems to be the very epitome of weird charisma. Why do tens of thousands of Americans support him with such enthusiasm? It’s really a trick answer, because the truth (he’s so unorthodox that his support comes mostly from outside the Republican party) proves that he isn’t nearly as charismatic as we’re led to believe. Paul’s supporters don’t abandon other Republicans to support him; instead they come to him from the void that is modern libertarianism, thus they have no where else to go.
Mitt Romney – Romney, quite frankly, is a cold fish. His personality is best suited for the country club scene. He’s shown great perseverance in this campaign, alas much less in the context of his own political career. He has changed positions on a number of issues, with timing that suggests opportunism rather than independence. In my opinion, Romney’s political career is more the product of a desire to be important than a natural tendency toward leadership.
Tom Tancredo – See Bill Richardson and Duncan Hunter above.
Fred Thompson – Poor Fred Thompson. There was no dress rehearsal for this presidential campaign, otherwise he might have performed much better. Whether it’s his own personality or his Law and Order character that peope were initially drawn to, that attraction has largely dissipated. Thompson bills himself as an entirely orthodox conservative, however he doesn’t adhere to the party platform as strictly as he would have people believe.