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12 Questions for Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama on “Eye-of-the-Storm” Leadership

The current U.S. presidential election is a great time to think about the relationship of 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. Solving these issues, or even capably “taming” them, will necessarily be a team sport, one that requires a new and more “protean” type of leadership.

How will Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama approach these coming storms? However unlikely it might be, 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:

Questions to the Presidential Candidates
1. Your 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?

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.

2. Exemplary Leaders. Name three living or historical leaders you admire who actually brought disparate groups together. What specifically did they do and how is it relevant for the issues you will be facing?

As voters, we could use greater insight into who their political heroes and heroines are and how the values and actions of those leaders mirror the aspirations of each candidate.

3. 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.

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?

4. Future Partners. All of you are running with certain key issues and goals in mind. History tells us that no president can achieve them alone. Who specifically are your future “trading partners” as you try to achieve your objectives?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to gain insights as to who they would try to approach to build partnerships with, both within their own party and across the aisle in the other? Further, it would be good to get a glimpse of what might be inside their trade zones. What issues might they give on in order to gain on others?

5. 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?

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.

6. 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?

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.

7. 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.

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.

8. 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.

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.

9. 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.

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.

10. 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?

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.

11. Mistakes. What mistake made by previous presidents are you most eager to avoid?

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.

12. 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?

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.

Ambrose Bierce once described politics as a “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” John Kenneth Galbraith called it the art of “choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” I have no delusions. In an age of mass marketing and the “selling of candidates,” this kind of in-depth political dialogue is virtually impossible. Nonetheless, accidents happen and every once in a long while, someone sneaks questions like these into the picture and, for a brief moment, something important is revealed.

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Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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