CHOOSING OUR FUTURE LEADERS The Case for Tough Vetting

4-14-14

CHOOSING OUR FUTURE LEADERS

The Case for Tough Vetting

A Brief for the Next Perilous 30 Years

By Jay B Gaskill

Facing Reality about Political Leaders

 

In the 2008 campaign for president, candidate Hillary Clinton, Senator from New York, complained that candidate Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois, had not been vetted. In the famous campaign television ad for Senator Clinton, the audience was asked in effect – When an emergency phone call for the President comes in at 3 AM, do you really want Barack Obama at the receiving end?

After a full first term and partway into the president’s second term, most democratic politicians facing reelection contests fervently wish that their POTUS nominee had been vetted. For that matter, a majority of Americans now wish that Governor Romney had been elected in 2012.  Hillary’s question is timely.

In this article, I address three related questions:

[1]   Where did all the vetting go? 

[2]   If a vetting procedure were put in place now, would candidate Hillary still want to be vetted?

[3]   What can we do about it now?

Several decades ago, the two major parties conducted vetting in private, picking their nominees in the smoke filled room.  The smoke is gone, and the primary system seems to have eliminated any real vetting, smoke or no smoke.

This now appears to be a serious mistake.

The next thirty years will be rough going for our nation and the world at large. As an optimist, I would much prefer three decades of peace and prosperity, starting with 2014.  But we cannot resign from the world and be forever immune from its troubles and disruptions lest that fate puts us in Hamlet’s place, facing that ultimate question: to be or not to be. This 21st century of the question asks us whether we will be true to our legacy as the world’s best hope, or not. …In the Danish prince’s words, are we, as a nation, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or [are we] to take arms against a sea of troubles. In either scenario, troubles will find us, whether we are prepared or unprepared.

Even optimists like me must admit that this country will face harrowing perils and challenges in the next three decades. We will need extraordinary leadership. Whether we thrive or submerge will be up to us and to the leaders we select.

We have been living for decades with retail politics, the arrangement where favors from the governing class are bartered for support.

This now appears to be a serious mistake.

Retail politics generates a new gaggle of unexceptional, underwhelming leader-wannabes in every election cycle. Whether another Churchill or FDR lurks among them is impossible for an ordinary voter to discern. In this article I name names, describe three neglected or discounted vital policy issues that inadequate or misguided leadership will fail to address in time. And without proactive, forward-looking leadership in all three of these problem areas, reality will bite us…hard.

I then describe some of the important characteristics of the kinds of leaders we should be looking for; and make the case for a leader vetting process.

After several decades, retail politics has left us with a legacy of squandered resources, bestowed on insatiable interest groups while starving the essential functions we depend on government to perform. You don’t have to be a conservative to realize that government is overextended and that, among the pernicious consequences, government is not performing its core functions very well at all.

Why? Retail politics is mostly about two things, both of which are designed to perpetuate a political catering class:

  1. Identification with trends, ideas, ideologies or interest groups that will draw support in the coming election cycle;
  2. The avoidance of accountability for failures in the last election cycle.

Retail politics is almost never about proactively implementing the common sense, practical solutions for our really fundamental problems (like preventing drought) because these problems require heavy lifting over several election cycles. To a typical retail politician, the task of really addressing the mundane, but essential tasks on which our actual day-to-day life as a country depends is perpetually postponable. Boutique issues will crowd out the really important ones; coalitions of hot micro-concerns will trump complacent majorities. A tendency to scandalous waste on the small issues at the expense of the large, long term ones is baked into the interest group-political class relationship that retail politics has evolved to perpetuate. We will need leaders who are willing and able to balance this tendency.

The tendency to squander immense resources on really big causes did not begin with the single-term presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but it reached a certain dizzy level of excess when LBJ squandered a vast fortune, several former administrations worth, on two wars – one, on poverty and one, against the Vietnamese communists; and lost them both.

Flash forward to the current administration.  When our new president threw another fortune at green energy projects, leaving a trail of bankrupt energy companies in its wake, and the US energy supply was not measurably better than before. This was LBJ Lite on the energy side. But when the same administration’s total cause-driven spending (saving Detroit, the crippled auto industry, re-inflating the housing bubble, bailing out favored banks and financial institutions) are taken into account, the dollar cost of WWII (which saved Western Civilization) almost looks like a bargain.

Typical retail politics nurtures pretend leadership- sharply focused on posturing, positioning and patronage. Real leadership can be dangerous to one’s career path.

But without long-term focus on core issues, and the timely breakthrough of authentic leadership willing to take on real problems with practical solutions, our fragile lifeline to survival is unnecessarily placed at risk. Neglected long term problems have a way of becoming fatal crises, taking front stage only when it is too late to head them off.

Why doesn’t retail politics produce better leaders?

The answer should be evident from a thought experiment:  List the well-known leaders who are capable of generating and sustaining support for the common sense, practical solutions that can solve the really fundamental problems on which our actual day-to-day life as a country depends. Having trouble with that list? Thinking of drafting someone?

Real leaders are never drafted. They draft themselves. 

Among the serious challenges that the USA will face a number over the next three decades, I have identified three core problem areas that cannot be neglected without severe penalties.  And if history is any guide, there will be other major additional challenges to catch us unprepared.

A second thought experiment: Assume that X, a leader-in-waiting, discovers that a large meteor will strike the Midwest US in 2021 with sufficient destructive force to kill a million people and destroy agricultural production in five key states for a decade. That disaster would trump all the other pending issues in the USA between now and then. Many of the solutions, like an orderly evacuation and major reinvestments in agricultural production outside the destruction zone, are common sense. But would we really prepare? How often do we heed our prophets?  An all too likely outcome: X is discredited for apocalyptic panic-mongering. In a follow-up account, “Rogue meteor destroys Midwest,” X is never mentioned.

After decades of apocalyptic rhetoric about global warming (now amended to climate change), and similar rhetoric about public indebtedness, (now amended to looming public debt default), why has little or no effective action has taken place? The “cry wolf” syndrome and the accumulation of false prophets has made reasonable people wary of being prematurely herded into unpleasant actions. If the immediate cost of avoiding a predicted disaster is relatively minor, then reasonable people can agree to a prevention program – not necessarily because they are convinced of the dark prophetic warnings, but because they are hedging their bets.

Consider two examples:

[1. ] Churchill’s pre-World War II warnings about the menace of Hitler’s Germany (before he became Prime Minister) were ignored. His leadership was accepted only when the threat became radically real.

[ 2.]  FDR’s second campaign in 1936 was as a peace-loving leader: “I hate war, and I know that the Nation hates war” and Today there is war and rumor of war. We want none of it. But while we guard our shores against threats of war, we will continue to remove the causes of unrest and antagonism at home which might make our people easier victims to those for whom foreign war is profitable. You know well that those who stand to profit by war are not on our side in this campaign.” This pre-election election speech in Madison Square Garden was made during the very year when Hitler’s intent to ravage Europe was blatantly apparent.  FDR’s national security leadership emerged only when the threat to the USA became radically real.

Roosevelt proved that he had the chops as a wartime leader; he was adaptable. We easily could have had a political hack.

THE TAKEAWAY LESSONS

It is unreasonable to expect our elected leaders to be prophets. But we can expect them to demonstrate a future-oriented perspective, and to have a track record of character, adaptability and effective leadership before we trust them with key positions of power.

In the long term, reality has a vote, too, and there always comes a day when some things are suddenly more important than charm, glibness and rock-star charisma:  Things like morally-anchored realism, like distaste for ideologues, and the capacity to rise to a new challenge and adapt.

Firm, morally-grounded principles (rooted in the ethos of the American founding) always trump ideology. Character always trumps moralistic pronouncements.  Nothing less than the sum of moral and personal virtues we call character will do for those we are to trust with our really critical leadership positions, like POTUS. But a character assessment has not been a distinct part of the POTUS selection/election process in the memory of anyone now alive.

Character is not the sum of one’s declared positions. Character’s presence or absence is revealed in the quality of one’s actions and decisions under pressure. We can know someone as a friend for years, but it’s only when we are in crisis that friendship is tested.  Character is the same. It can be initially “installed” during our upbringing, but whether character has truly been instilled remains to be tested by life.

The parent’s lament, “we brought him/her up to be better than that,” reminds us that the lessons on which character is founded can be only taught, as by parents, mentors & teachers.  But character, itself, is forged by life’s challenges.  This is why a leader’s character should have been tested before he or she assumes power.  Cleverness and charisma tend to show up before character is formed and tested.

Voters who just assume a candidate is a person of character place the country at great risk.

 

 

THE NEVER AGAIN! VETTING PROJECT

Starting now, we need to form a coalition of reasonable, practical women and men that will stand together, demanding that credible private institutions be tasked to vet our key potential leaders before they get a grip on power. This is the NEVER AGAIN! VETTING PROJECT.

The vetting process is not just for negatives like potential scandal. Vetting is for the essential positives: character, reasonableness, principled realism, attention to the essential, long term issues on which survival depends, and the capacity for adaptability.

Vetting is the means to impartially and truthfully inform the rest of us before some charismatic fool (lacking in character, reasonableness, principled realism, attention to the essential, long term issues on which survival depends, and without the capacity for adaptability), gets a firm hold on power.

In the vetting process, fervent ideologues of the left and right may need to be placated, but must never be allowed to govern the selection process of our most critically important leaders. Ideologues tend to be blind about character, reasonableness, the capacity for adaptability, principled realism, as long as the candidate is “one of us”. Even if a candidate say he or she will pay attention to the long term issues on which our very survival depends, good intentions will not matter if a leader lacks the character to do the hard thing.

The vetting process should be tough, objective but confidential at the front end, so that potential leaders can participate without the risk of unnecessary embarrassment.  The much criticized smoke filled room process quietly weeded out problem candidates without publically destroying them. But the vetting process must be fully transparent at the release end, exposing the flaws, lapses or inadequacies of wannabe leaders who choose to charge forward without regard to the vetting process.

Ideally, the vetting would be done within each major political party in a more principled version of the “smoke filled room”.  But history teaches that in the overheated primary process our much-weakened party hierarchies are not capable of aggressive vetting (except possibly for the absence of scandals that would endanger electability).

In an important Op Ed in the New York Times, David Brooks praises the latest campaign contribution limitation case by the Supreme Court (eliminating limits for wealthy donors who want to contribute to political parties).   In my opinion, this may strengthen the candidate vetting power of the two parties (a point not addressed the Brooks’ piece). Here are some pull quotes:

“Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.

“But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.”

“The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

“In their book ‘Better Parties, Better Government,’ Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

“Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one.”

{LINK: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/opinion/brooks-party-all-the-time.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0 }

However the vetting evaluation processes of potential leaders are structured, the ultimate election process requires a critical mass of informed voters. And this means that the vetting results need to be credible and widely circulated.

This is why we must develop bipartisan vetting entities whose principal power lies in their investigative credibility, access to the media and the ultimate trustworthiness of their recommendations and cautions.   Our very survival may well depend on public education and electoral accountability.  I recognize that this is a culture change. It will not spontaneously appear like the spring flowers. It will start with coalitions of reasonable minds who are willing to set aside partisan differences and tune down the ideological rhetoric. 

It will start with us.

I have referred to turbulent decades ahead. Most of the conflicts and solutions will revolve around three problem categories (see the discussion Re Energy, National Security and Water below). It is critical that the vetting discussions go beyond the immediate politics of the moment. All leaders assume elected office in the context of the short term issues de jure but also in the looming shadow of the vital, long-term public policy issues. Both categories need to be given equal weight in assessing a leader’s readiness and suitability.  The following section identifies the three principal long-term problem areas that, in my personal opinion, will require strong, realistic political and policy leadership over the next three challenging decades.

 

The Big Three Problem Categories for 2014 – 2044:

ENERGY, NATIONAL SECURITY & WATER

ENERGY

Why is not global warming on this short list? …Because the decisive issue will not be climate change as such, but our capacity to quickly adapt to climate change together with a host of related problems, all of which take us back to one critical inflection point: Whatever happens with world climate, the USA will need a robust, secure, dependable and abundant energy supply to cope with it.

I am a climate realist. To describe oneself as a “climate change believer” is social code for someone who has gone all-in on the conventional wisdom that the planet is warming up at a dangerous rate, and that modern human activity, almost certainly our production of CO2, is the driving cause. Every contrary view is dismissed as “climate change denial”, a mindset that is seen as equivalent to the flat earth fringe.  There is an underlying – and unexamined – premise lurking here: that climate control is a proper subject of public policy. A caution flag: If/when we humans really do attain the ability to control climate on a large scale, the resulting political disputes are very likely to ignite world war.

Many of us in both political parties find ourselves in the climate realism camp. This implies robust skepticism about climate control measures. Large scale climate change is – thankfully – well outside the power of ordinary human political institutions to alter or control…for now.

Were it otherwise, we will be living in the shadow of world war, because there can be no worldwide consensus about which region gets to take the short end of the climate stick.

Climate realists also acknowledge both: the 70 year trend of warming; and the recent multi- year warming pause. Realists tend to place the last century’s overall record of warming (the fine grained accuracy of aggregate world temperatures decreases with time) in the reasonably suggestive, but not in the conclusive, discussion is over category.

 

SOME REASONS FOR QUALIFIED SKEPTICISM

 

[1]   The Ruddiman Hypothesis: Most readers will not have heard of it. Dr. William F. Ruddiman is a respected paleoclimatologist with unquestioned credentials and experience. He has posed the “early anthropocene” hypothesis, the theory that greenhouse gasses from human activity that started about 8,000 years ago from land use changes like deforestation and farming activities of our early ancestors that have changed the natural pattern of periodic climate change. Absent human activity, in Ruddiman’s analysis, we would have otherwise been in an incipient ice age.  Ruddiman and many other scientists believe that global cooling periods and ice ages are mostly caused by sunlight heating reductions due to natural variations in the Earth’s orbit known as Milankovitch cycles. Ruddiman’s overdue-glaciation hypothesis holds that that an incipient ice age would normally have started thousands of years ago, but  was forestalled by the activities of early farmers, and only more recently by industrial activity. Professor Ruddiman’s theory  may prove correct, in full or part, or not at all. But there is about as much evidence to support Ruddiman’s view (that global warming is saving us from an ice age) as the conventional climate wisdom (i.e., that human industrial development, especially the CO2 emissions, have caused the warming observed from1900 through 1990).

 

[2]   The new warming pause: Many readers have not heard about the still-unexplained current warming “pause.”  But the data are real and difficult to explain because CO2 emissions have continued to increase substantially during the same period. See the March 8th 2014 Economist article, “Who pressed the pause button? The slowdown in rising temperatures over the past 15 years goes from being unexplained to overexplained”, at http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21598610-slowdown-rising-temperatures-over-past-15-years-goes-being . Also see the January 14th 2014 NATURE article, Climate change: The case of the missing heatSixteen years into the mysterious ‘global-warming hiatus’, scientists are piecing together an explanation, at http://www.nature.com/news/climate-change-the-case-of-the-missing-heat-1.14525 .

 

There are other recent reports. Explanations proliferate. The conventional wisdom continues to command front stage. And the pause may be continuing…or possibly not.  NASA has reported that 2013 may be a warming blip (See http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/january/nasa-finds-2013-sustained-long-term-climate-warming-trend/#.UziCL_ldWSo  ). Is the resumption of warming after a decade and a half? The same report cautions to not put too much stock in year-on-year changes, suggesting that decade-on-decade changes are more significant.

 

AMERICA’S PRIME CANDIDATE FOR SECURE, ABUNDANT ENERGY—

THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT

Prudent policy emphasizes adaptation, for the simple reason that: (a) if the conventional wisdom holds, the Chinese greenhouse gas output alone guarantees that the effects of warming will need to be addressed for the foreseeable future; or (b) if we really are in for a major cooling period, the even more dangerous effects, especially on agriculture (as in mass starvation) will need to be quickly addressed.

In other words, we obviously will need to put more time, thought and resources into adaptation to changing conditions on earth, whatever the cause

It seems obvious that prudent policy would have us invest in a primary energy source that works well whether we are headed into a super-tropical period or an ice age, or a mix of the two.  But that primary energy source is not easily found among the current “green” energy sources, particularly solar and wind. The two most popular “green” energy sources, wind and solar, cannot reliably fulfill our cooling, heating and transportation needs for 365 days, 24 hours even if they were quantitatively sufficient, because they are seasonal and sporadic. Until or unless battery/energy storage achieves a so-far elusive breakthrough, both sources run out at moments of critical need.  And in any case they are not even close to filling more than a fraction of the total energy demand.

Few respectable green energy advocate care to argue that the “green” energy sources in their current stages of development can be much more than supplementary during the next thirty years. So, purists insist that the energy gap is to be filled by reduced consumption. The prospect that we must stop relying on the traditional combustion sources like oil, bio diesel and natural gas, invites the American public to elect to endure chronic energy insufficiency for the “greater good”. But accepting energy starvation as the “new normal” will be unacceptable now and for the future for the vast majority of Americans.

Dinner invitation from a leper

America’s energy needs demand that we rapidly exploit our cleanest carbon-based fuels in the near-term (natural gas sources, extracted with as little environmental damage as practicable), while using that revenue and time to develop the nuclear-electric option in the mid-term.  Miracles are for the long term. Meantime we already had working atomic power technologies. But nuclear power is the rich leper of our time whose invitation to dinner will be rejected until the prospective quests are among the starving. The irony here is that the leprosy has been cured, at least among the developed countries using the latest technologies.  The second irony is that atomic power is an American invention that is now aggressively being pursued by the Chinese.

Few Americans are aware that generation three nuclear reactors are designed for passive safe shutdowns. Few have been made aware that the negative health and accident impacts of up-to-date nuclear technology are far less than the effects of coal, oil and natural gas based energy sources. Few have considered that the US nuclear arsenal could be converted to an energy supply system that would provide for all our foreseeable energy needs for the next thousand years.

We talk about swords into plowshares.  This conversion is real.

Very few Americans know that the nuclear waste disposal problem can be – and has been – solved by using a combination of three technological developments, coupled with military level security:

  1. Vitrification technology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Vitrification ) is the process in which encasing mid and low level waste is in a form of glass, effectively removes the leakage issues and allows for lower cost, low impact storage, much as we already safely manage medical radiological waste now.
  2. The active recycling of spent fissile fuels through reprocessing of fuel rods is a form of active storage-in-use. (See  http://www.whatisnuclear.com/articles/recycling.html )
  3. Technologies that employ low level atomic waste to generate useful heat, without initiating a full-on nuclear reaction are being actively explored, tested and promoted by public minded entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.

No energy source is risk free, but so far few of us are willing to weigh comparative risks. For example, the peacetime use of nuclear energy to generate power has killed fewer people than oil production related mishaps, and “traditional’ air pollution has reportedly killed seven million people in one year. {See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/world/pollution-killed-7-million-people-worldwide-in-2012-report-finds.html?_r=0 }

In spite of the prevalent anti-nuclear propaganda, an increasing number of Americans have been made aware that nuclear energy can be green.  Among the original founders of Greenpeace, environmentalist Patrick Moore, a Canadian ecologist, supports nuclear energy as our primary, rational green option. The peaceful uses of nuclear power are immensely promising and do not require any new technological breakthroughs, just the application of traditional economic strategies, like standardization and mass production with the kind of tight safety and security measures that are used for medical radiation and for U. S. Naval reactors at sea.

In addition to the overhyped “leprosy” issue, there are very legitimate security issues: The use of fissile materials for routine energy use raises security concerns over theft or misappropriation for weapons’ use.  While lower enrichment grades of uranium are useful for power generation, higher grades are also useful for making bombs. Routine civilian security measures will probably not be enough to reassure an nervous electorate. And this frames the political paralysis problem that any constructive energy leader will have to face in the next 30 years.

The US Navy (with its nuclear powered fleet of vessels) has solved the security issue, by using proven technology combined with old-fashioned discipline.

{See – http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2013/ph241/tekant1/ and http://www.cbo.gov/publication/41454  and http://nnsa.energy.gov/ourmission/poweringnavy  }

The security of nuclear fuel under the control of the US military suggests an obvious solution: Adopt a system in which all fissile material reasonably capable of weaponization as nuclear explosives can only be utilized by the US civilian sector conditionally; that such materials will be owned, leased, secured and controlled by the military while licensed for civilian use under direct military security.[1]

The nuclear energy problem illustrates the nature of a leadership challenge: This is the kind political conflict typical of the type that eventually yields to enlightened and skilled leadership.

But timing is everything.  The safe, standardized nuclear technology is tested and ready, but not manufactured.  One model, being pursued by Toshiba is a modular design – a small, mass-produced reactor, the kind that can be buried, then power a mid-sized city, needing little attention for a decade at a time.

While developing a safe and reliable nuclear-electric power infrastructure, the country’s energy needs (and major revenue source) will be met by domestic natural gas, using state of the art extraction and conversion technologies.  This is a bridge solution, pending the time when 90% of the US energy consumption starts and ends with reliable, secure, clean nuclear power centers.  As the transition to nuclear proceeds, more and more of the US natural gas production is exported.

THE ENERGY LEADERSHIP TIPPING POINT

When the desirability and necessity of “green nuclear” programs becomes more apparent, and the non-nuclear solutions, like windmills, appear insufficient, it will come down to a stark choice between even more combustion-based sources, as in fracking, drilling and digging; energy deprivation, vs. energy abundance through a robust nuclear power economy which will allow the combustion-based sources tp be phased out.

How will astute leaders find the zone of compromise? A super-majority of contemporary liberals can be expected to object to the proposed level of military involvement, while a smaller majority will remain too nervous about the “nuclear thing”. Conservatives, who typically support the military, can be expected to object to the socialist nature of a government owned and controlled energy source, no matter how cheap and safe it might turn out to be.

But the long term merits of nuclear energy, clean, safe and reliable, will prevail. While the threshold monetary investment may be higher than fracking for additional natural gas, the ultimate energy costs will drop with mass production and standardization of the reactors, utilization of existing fuels, creative power generating centers, the productive lifetime of which will be measured in decades, allowing the costs to be amortized.

The task of real leadership is to move at the appropriate time, with the necessary courage to bring about reasonable, practical solutions by bridging the kinds of political impasses just described. It will be done because it must be done.

 

NATIONAL SECURITY

This country will not survive the next thirty years as a beacon of constitutional liberty if it continues to attempt to operate with a gutted military capability that, on a time-adjusted scale, is reminiscent of the antiquated and anemic forces of pre-WW II USA. Given the accelerated pace of modern conflicts, a belated buildup in the manner of post-Pearl Harbor America will eventually be too little, too late, a case of fatal tardiness.  A more stable defense baseline, aggressively modernized, will require a secure funding mechanism and a highly professional military.

 

The recent aggressive moves by Russia in the former Soviet-ruled Eastern European countries; China’s intimidation excursions in the Pacific region; and Iran’s duplicitous boldness as it gets closer to nuclear bomb capability, are just the early warning signs: This is a preview of  how much more dangerous the world will be like if America’s military remains in a weakened state.

It was no coincidence that the last major wars were preceded by the perceived military weakness of key players.

It is – or should be – axiomatic that power vacuums are opportunistically filled by bullies.

The European reliance on “soft power” belongs to the “use a gun, go to your room” school of child rearing. For at least the next thirty years, America will need an adult foreign policy backed by armed forces sufficient to deter and intimidate the world’s bullies.

Again the solution is readily explained, but its implementation will require leadership.  During the recent budget deficit disputes in the Beltway, Social Security was essentially off the table.  While Social Security reform is inevitable, its dramatic hollowing out, of the kind that the sequester limitations have visited on the US military, is not going to take place for the SSI program.  Why not? Because there is a well-established funding mechanism in the form of a stable payroll tax that generated a stable revenue stream for Social Security.  …But not for defense.

The Defense underfunding problem can be solved in a similar fashion, by utilizing a stable taxing mechanism resulting in a stable, sufficient revenue stream.  For example (the numbers are used for illustration purposes only), the US military budget baseline could be met with a single flat tax on all adjusted gross income, say, of 3.5%. By contrast, the Social Security tax is visibly levied at 6.2% on an individual payroll, and invisibly levied at the same rate, 6.2% on employers (12.4% for self-employed).  But because the Social Security program promises a defined benefit at a defined age, the 12.4% tax is more readily accepted than a “peacetime, war-prevention” tax would be. Even though most taxpayers are already paying for military protection via different – and less stable taxing mechanisms, a military-related tax presents political obstacles.

Any leader who tackles this must address the mistrust of government institutions problem, and the popular tendency to ignore or deny threats until they are painfully close at hand. Again, the task of real leadership is to move at the appropriate time, with the necessary courage to bring about reasonable, practical solutions by bridging the political impasses of the moment.

WATER, WATER & MORE WATER

 

FOOD might have been chosen as the critical issue, but the main discussion would still have been about the supply of water, both potable water and water suitable for crop irrigation. Water is and will remain one of the vitally important public policy issues of the century.

 

Regional drought is in the news again.  Yes, there are subtext issues – about the great Southwest population migrations, the Arizona and Nevada golf courses and swimming pools, the diversion of the water supplies from sources further west and so on.  But the core issues remain the same: water for agricultural production and pure water immediate personal uses, like drinking and bathing. Any rational water policy puts these two uses first; and any rational public policy puts affordable water access as a top priority.

Perspective:

[1]   There will always be droughts…somewhere.

[2]   All water shortages are local in the sense that there always is surplus water, often in the form of flooding, somewhere else.

[3]   Most water issues – other than those concerned with purity and potability – are about the water capture and storage infrastructure.

[4]   With planning and appropriate allocation of resources, water shortages can and should be prevented – because the alternative may be mass migration.

Snow capture is a very important piece for large regions of the USA because there is no robust runoff capture infrastructure for ordinary rain that is currently in place in most of the USA.  California is a a case in point. That state still has ample rainfall, overall, to serve its agricultural needs, but the reservoir and flow capture system is mostly keyed to the localized snow runoff. The dry coastal region, now overpopulated with water users, is another matter, and the water insufficiency problem is beginning to resemble come Middle East coastal desert regions where oil money pays for expensive desalinization.

This essay is not the place for a detailed discussion of all the complex water infrastructure issues. But the takeaway point is clear:

Few if any of the current drought problems in the USA are insoluble, given the application of energy-intensive technology. In a hypothetical, high-tech future where safe nuclear (or source X) energy is widely available, abundant and reasonably inexpensive, massive desalinization and interstate projects suddenly will become feasible.

Again, the task of real leadership is to move at the appropriate time, with the necessary courage to bring about reasonable, practical solutions by bridging the political impasses of the moment. At the retail politics level, water policy is about regional and functional allocation priorities. But at the long term leadership policy level it is about the technologies and infrastructure investments that will dramatically reduce the political conflicts by producing overall abundance.

This is why the question of core policy leadership comes full circle to the question of energy, which in turn may depend on the intelligent use of security resources. But the problem of identifying the right leader for the time depends on intangibles that include the character of the times in question, and the characters of the prospective leaders.

LEADER PROFILES

 

Promising leaders get elected on the basis of promises, but authentic leaders are selected from those who first self-identify as leaders-in-fact, having credible track records of accomplishments.

Character, the sine qua non of a trustworthy leader, is not established by mere pronouncements, no matter how eloquent.  Character is demonstrated by real world decisions and actions under duress.

Retail politicians tend to issue promising platitudes, as in “We need a better energy policy”; “I favor national security”; and “We should not neglect the water issue”.  But credible policies from credible leaders begin with detailed, practical measures, competent staff work and realistic plans for implementation.

The political leaders that the USA will need over the next three decades will come with a declared vision, developed policies, competent staff and track records from government and the private sector that clearly demonstrate that they are serious players. They will be real world, and real time adaptive leaders. They may be strong conservatives or strong liberals, but they will not be ideologues.

The leaders we will need over the next three decades may vary in their approaches on a number of issues and policies, but they will have one perspective in common: They will be champions of:

  • abundance over privation;
  • security over surrender;
  • human lives over non-human lives or faux-living machines;
  • personal dignity over bureaucracies;
  • Human judgment over algorithms.

The single most revealing arena for a prospective American president to have demonstrated the relevant leadership skills is the governorship of a large state that includes at least one major urban center and contains enough ex-urban and rural territory to expose its leaders to the agricultural and other problems and emergencies that demand hands-on attention.[2]

The most significant lapse in otherwise qualified leaders who seek the highest executive office is the absence of loyal, competent staff support.

The higher the position, the larger the staff required. Dwight Eisenhower, having accumulated competent, staff and staff contacts from coordinating the vast Allied military forces of WW II, and Ronald Reagan, coming from a two term governorship of a major state, each arrived with presidential caliber staff support by swearing-in day.  Bill Clinton, a politically talented governor from a small state, had a difficult time in his first term in part because too many key staff positions went unfilled for too long.

The staff demands – and by extension the executive leadership demands on each succeeding presidency are increasing. The current president, a first term junior senator from a mid-sized state, arrived with a small clique of community activists with ideological connections to other activists.

There are several reasons to reject leaders with too ideological an approach to governance, among them the inability to engage in fruitful dialogue with the opposition, and that ideology unnecessarily limits the universe of competent, patriotic staffers to a smaller clique of true believers.

Moreover, the really big issues, like food, water, security, energy can only be addressed by leaders who are comfortable and capable of working past ideological blinders to get agreements and cooperation on the available practical solutions.

At present – March 25, 2014, there are at a number of potentially viable candidates for President of the United States. Of these there are six governors with name recognition outside their respective states and two of them who haven’t yet advanced past the hesitant debutant stage.

VETTING THE UNWILLING, UNDERQUALIFIED

 

We are living through a period in which much better vetting of POTUS candidates (assuming any vetting took place at all) could well have saved the country from some very bad leadership decisions and damaging policy lapses.  The fact that internal vetting is not taking place (or is overcome by ideological blindness) is a grave problem, one that needs to be quickly addressed, whether publically or privately.

What would a POTUS vetting process look like?

The notion of MQ analysis (minimum job qualifications) is relatively straightforward. For example, a hypothetical vetting group might rule out all the senators (who did not otherwise serve in an executive role anywhere) on grounds of “insufficient executive experience” (leaving them open for the second position on the ticket).

Established public figures present a special vetting problem because of an assumption that he or she has already been vetted.  But this is often not the case. For example, most vetting groups would likely give a pass to Mrs. Clinton, unless her results were to be deeply confidential and directed only to party leaders.  For an established public figure like Hillary Clinton, only something really problematic, like participating in a cover up of the Benghazi matter, or some highly embarrassing personal scandal, would likely see the light of day.

Yet this is exactly the situation in which such a vetting process is crucial because something as proven executive ability is a crucial MQ for the top executive position in US government. 

I use Hillary Clinton’s situation to call attention to the problems inherent in any private vetting body that depends for its credibility on a reputation for integrity. Cases like hers – figures that most voters know fairly well, among them a core group of passionate supporters – can distort the vetting process.  In our hypothetical Hillary Clinton example, a vetting entity that discovers real problems might elect to avoid any endorsement, while also declining to make any outright disqualification.

For this and other reasons, we will probably need a two-tiered vetting process, one private, directed at the movers and shakers in each party that pulls no punches, and another one, a more a measured report for the public, something on the order of a consumer rating score.[3] Especially where sensitive character issues are involved, a preliminary report, hard hitting and candid, must go confidentially to the respective party leaders (and to the candidate for rebuttal) before any nomination.

When significant scandal and/or serious character flaws are uncovered and the party leaders insist on ignoring them, the vetting entity might choose to release a public version with the relevant reports summarized, assigned a provisional credibility rating, and leave the rest to the press.

Many political leaders I know, some of whom have spoken candidly off the record in recent years, are well acquainted with the vetting problem; and are equally aware of the needed solution, much as it is outlined here.  This is not a problem in rocket science, but one in political courage. The mice are in danger and no one wants to bell the cat.

 

THE 2016 POTUS RACE

 

Not everyone is in the field yet, but here is the list of the credible declared and undeclared candidates, as it appears in April 2014:

Jerry Brown**, governor of California (1075-1983 and 2011-present)

Jeb Bush*, former governor of Florida (1999-2007)

Andrew Cuomo, current governor of New York State (2011-present)

Chris Christie, New Jersey governor (2009-present)

Bobby Jindal*, Louisiana governor (2008-present)

Rick Perry*, former governor of Texas (2000-2013)

Mitt Romney#, former governor of Massachusetts (2002-2006)

Scott Walker*, governor of Wisconsin (2011- present)

…………………………….and the non-governors………………………………………………………

Former New York Senator and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton*

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky*

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida*

Vice President Joe Biden#

[* not yet in // ** really not in // # in, but a second tier nominee]

Are there any current candidates who might not survive a tough vetting process? Yes. On the democratic side, I have omitted fringe candidates for whom vetting in this cycle is probably unnecessary.

But we must not ignore that Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy has thrown up some red flags. Note the stories about her temperament and certain potential “character” issues, especially those in the cover-up and denial category.

Granted, a new, untried vetting entity striving to maintain a reputation for impartiality would be understandably reluctant to “DQ” Mrs. Clinton. On the republican side, Senator Rand Paul would rate low in any vetting, at least in my opinion, because the Senator has little significant executive experience, and presents a too-narrow ideological stance.

Both parties now seem to be relying exclusively on the primary system and the campaign process to sort out the unqualified and inappropriate potential leaders. Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives, for example, fed negative information about Mr. Obama to GOP operatives and friends at Fox who then refused to use the information. It seems that one cannot safely leave the vetting process even to one’s campaign opponents. Any vetting process will be criticized by the fans of those it disfavors.  This is why the character of those investigating and analyzing sensitive candidate vetting information must be above approach.

The investigative phase of the vetting process might be arranged to resemble the “devil’s advocate” role in pre-beatification investigations conducted by the Vatican.

PROFILES OF SOME INTERESTING LEADERS

 

A Tale of Two Governors:

Chris Christie (NJ) and Bobby Jindal (LA): One is an Indian American with degrees in biology, public policy and a masters’ degree in political science, a social conservative, popular republican in a traditionally democratic state; one is a lawyer who served as a US attorney, a social liberal republican in a traditionally democratic state. On the merits, both are well qualified executives, but only one has been taken seriously.  What is strange about this picture?

Christie is an improbable rock star and Jindal is not.  Any USDA who is a local New Jersey boy with the physique of a Sumo wrestler (or a Howard Taft), and has the chutzpa to take on organized crime in his own state, has the makings of a leader.  Flash forward: Christie is elected governor, takes on the vested interests and moves the state into a more responsible fiscal position; then he attracts significant GOP backing for a presidential run.  Then some of his staff members are caught out misusing state authority to impede rush hour traffic on a bridge in order to punish an uncooperative elected official from the other party.  Shades of tricky Dick Nixon…or high school level pranks? Neither scenario sounds very “presidential.” The staff members were summarily sacked. Governor Christie denies being part of the scheme, and so far no evidence has surfaced to the contrary.

Meantime, Jindal is considered a marginal candidate for POTUS. His state is considered less important, his national standing is thin. Governor Christie is naturally aggressive and charming and New Jersey is in the Eastern seaboard media market.  Jindal is a very plausible policy-directed candidate, but for the “money people” it’s all about perceived electability.

In my opinion, both governors would benefit from a forma vetting process: Jindal’s visibility would increase; Christie’s “scandal” would be downgraded; and any lingering health concerns about Governor Christie’s obesity problem would be allayed…or not.

Story pending…

Jerry Brown is former Governor of California, and the current comeback Governor of California, the two terms of service separated by a generation. In the 1970’s Brown governed as a parsimonious liberal who, in his second term advocated spending the very large state surplus to launch an earth satellite, thus earning the New Age sobriquet, “Governor Moonbeam.” I met with former governor Brown when he was the mayor of the City of Oakland to discuss the crime problem. I then found him to be a recovering leftist who had seen the light where law and order issues were concerned. His service as mayor was budget conscious, business development centered and pro-law enforcement. When he ran for governor – his current position – it was as a fiscal conservative with liberal street cred.  He defeated Meg Whitman; and then did a more effective job convincing his fellow democrats to take many of the fiscal measures that Whitman advocated and former governor Schwarzenegger failed to accomplish. Much of Brown’s transformation is simply due to maturity, but the sea change began with connection to Anne Gust (they married in 2005 after many years together). Gust is a tough minded, level headed corporate lawyer and business woman.

[Personal note: I would love to see Jerry Brown enter the democratic race for POTUS and deny Hillary Clinton the nomination. Of course, I have no inside knowledge about this whatsoever.]

Andrew Cuomo has a solid record as Governor of New York. As a democrat who inherited a large deficit, he has demonstrated the ability to work with republicans; and has managed to get and keep the state’s fiscal status in the black, irritating public employee unions in the process.  Then Cuomo seemed to gratuitously rile up gun owners with some Second Amendment overreaching in New York’s recent “assault weapons” legislation. In general, Cuomo’s liberalism has manifested in relatively low cost measures aimed at specific constituencies and needs. Cuomo is the democratic alternative to Hillary.

Rick Perry, the longest serving Texas governor, has promoted a business friendly climate, reaping rewards in employment and growth, while impressing liberal analysts with his approach to higher education reform.  At his relaxed best, Perry projects a Reaganesque charm, but – as in the 2012 campaign – he can stumble and misspeak when tired.  In his 2013 incarnation, appearing on the Letterman show in Austin, he charmed everyone and looked plausibly presidential.  Like Cuomo and Perry’s predecessor, Governor George W Bush, this Texas governor has the knack of getting things done by working with the opposite party. Perry is the man to watch if and when Governor Christie’s presidential bid loses steam.

Mitt Romney may be most decent man to mount a serious campaign for president in the last 65 years; and has the advantage of visibility and the growing public realization that he was more right than wrong last time. His management skills, business acumen, solid staff support and bipartisan style are particularly important assets for a leader-in-office, but less valuable as a primary candidate. Governor Romney’s very competence, caution and decency were liabilities when facing the democratic attack machine.  If he has it in him to summon fighting spirit during the campaign, that revelation will go a long way towards demonstrating the ability to govern the country well through the coming rough patches.

Hillary Clinton, the best known of the candidates, is a canny, tough-minded, strongly partisan liberal, who endured most of her political life in her husband’s shadow, emerging only to be denied the presidential nomination that she may have felt was hers by right of inheritance in 2008.  Hillary
Clinton’s reputation for payback, bordering on ruthlessness, was such that the rumors that Mr. Obama refused to put her on the ticket as Vice President because he couldn’t find a trusted food taster…were only partly in jest. She accepted the Secretary of State position as a consolation prize then practically ruined her health with incessant – and mostly ineffectual – global travel for the next four years. She contemplates running one more race at age 70, with rumors of having suffered some neurological “issue” when she fell sick toward the end of her tenure. Lingering health concerns and worries about damaging scandal might cause her to reconsider a run, but this is a woman consumed with ambition. …Which is why these are also proper subjects for a vetting process. Did she peak as a candidate in 2008? With Governor Cuomo as her leading opponent, most observers believe that the democratic nomination is hers for the taking.  Are there legitimate doubts about her performance as a leader? Even the friendly observers do not see Hillary Clinton as a promising bipartisan healer or a coalition builder. As the politician who dismissed the GOP as part of the “Great Right Wing Conspiracy”, Hillary Clinton has earned her reputation as an ardent “my road or the highway” player.  But our next president will probably face a legislative chamber controlled by the GOP, and a population expecting someone untainted by association with Mr. Obama’s errors and lapses.

Jeb Bush, the 41st president’s son and the 43rd president’s brother, is a very well-liked former Florida governor who tends to elicit comments from those close to his career path like, “He will make a fine president” with the implication that Jeb Bush has every prospect of making a better president than his brother (at least a more articulate one). His serious attention to policy issues, the theme of republican inclusion and his track record of responsible, across-the-aisle governance, are positive attributes that one would expect of an able leader.

 

All my observations are based on a small list of the personalities who may well enter and possibly win the race for POTUS 2016.  One or more great potential leaders may yet show up as strong candidates with a surge of support. That could change everything.

[Personally, I would love to see Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Governor Jerry Brown and General David Petraeus jump in, and run strong, policy-focused campaigns.]

But all my comments about personalities are both personal and fallible. The need for effective, early vetting rests on an assessment of human nature generally, not any individual named here. We the people need searching, investigation-based evaluation of all the candidates.  And the vetting processes must necessarily address the criteria and associated problems I have mentioned here.  The process has to begin sometime.

I say that now would be the right time

Richard Nixon: A Thought Experiment.

President Eisenhower did not have access to a character assessment of Nixon when the California senator was put on the ticket as Vice President “for balance”. Yet the stories about the darker sides to Nixon’s personality, the insecurities, lying and paranoid thinking were quietly discussed.

Eisenhower, a strong personality who could tolerate and sometimes employ an “attack dog”, was not thinking about Nixon as a candidate for future president. That would be a problem for others, later.

What would a thorough vetting of Senator Nixon’s suitability to assume the presidency have accomplished?

We’ll never know.

JBG

 Copyright © 2014 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law Links, forwards and pull quotes with attribution are welcome and encouraged. For all comments and other permissions, contact the author at: law@jaygaskill.com

Jay B Gaskill is the California attorney who served as the 7th Chief Public Defender for the County of Alameda, headquartered in Oakland.

Having left his “life of crime” for writing and policy analysis, Mr. Gaskill’s non-fiction articles are archived on The Policy Think Site { www.jaygaskill.com }.

His fiction is published by Central Avenue Publishing in British Columbia.

Gaskill’s forthcoming novel, Gabriel’s Stand, is a thriller about fanatical environmentalists (think extreme negative population growth here) whose clueless supporters precipitate a constitutional crisis so that life-saving medical technologies can be outlawed to “save the earth.” Publication pending:  Gabriel’s Stand will be available in hard copy and as an e-book from all major outlets. The thriller is scheduled for release in late May 2014.


[1] Background: Plutonium is an ideal fuel source, much better than uranium. President Jimmy Carter banned the use of plutonium by civilian reactors to avoid possible theft for weapons use, particularly from civilian utilities.  Navy reactors use a much higher concentration of highly reactive uranium than civilian ones – a percentage of refinement that we might object to in, say, an Iranian reactor because it could be more easily upgraded further for use in a bomb. Ironically, the highly enriched US Navy reactors produce less plutonium than do the civilian reactors. The highly enriched uranium used in reactors that power US Navy Carriers will provide power for the life of the vessels themselves. [I note that the latest lunar rover is running on a plutonium-based battery (really a mini-reactor) that potentially will provide power as long as the equipment that it powers does.]  Recycled uranium fuel rods (a process done in what is called a “breeder reactor”) end up with levels of plutonium that can be used or extracted. Reactor safety issues overlap with the security ones. This is why a robust, recycling, swords-into-plowshares nuclear electric economy (promising abundant energy for 1,000 years) needs to keep the fissile (energy producing metals like uranium and plutonium) under military control. As a bonus, the safety and security track record of the military reactors should help public concerns about safety and security.

[2] We might add the experience of mayor a huge city like New York – the scale of which exceeds that of many states.

[3] …As in executive experience: sound / more than sufficient / barely sufficient/ requires substantial assistance