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The Fierce Urgency of How

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My reaction to the news that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have agreed to yet another debate, this one on April 16, in Philadelphia: 

Be still my heart! 

Having forsworn ever watching another so-called debate for fear of dying from Trivialitis – but apparently having a strong self-destructive urge – I fear I will once again find myself hunkered down in front of my television to watch the candidates swap one-liners. 

Barack will promise to bring us all together so that the nation can move forward. He’ll again assert his prewar opposition to Iraq and promise to bring our troops home. He’ll tell us yet again that we have to be as careful bringing them home as we were careless sending them in. He’ll assure Pennsylvania voters that he’s going to renegotiate NAFTA. And, of course, he’ll promise us universal health care, middle-class tax relief, better schools, secure borders, a rescue plan for victims of Katrina and sub-prime mortgages, and energy independence. And no doubt we’ll hear yet again about how John McCain would have us stay in Iraq for the next hundred years. 

Hillary will tell us how ready she is to be Commander-in-Chief on Day One. She too will repeat all the lofty goals she and her opponent share – universal health care (but leaving no one out), energy independence, better teachers and smaller classrooms, an exit strategy for Iraq (two brigades a month), the NAFTA riff, secure borders, and of course middle-class tax relief, better schools, a rescue plan for victims of Katrina and sub-prime mortgages, energy independence, and John McCain’s 100-year-war.  

But unless they have some kind of joint epiphany, neither candidate will talk about how they view the Constitution, the limits of Presidential Power, secretive government, how they will reach consensus with the Congress, separation of church and state, Guantanamo, Bagram, the CIA’s secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, the respective checks-and-balances roles of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government -- and a host of other mismanaged issues that have arguably assured George W. Bush one of the most pitiful legacies of any President in our history. 

Our two Democratic contenders – and the TV anchors who moderate these colloquies -- apparently believe that discussion of such issues is so far down in the weeds that viewers’ eyes will instantly glaze over and the entire nation will scramble for the remote. 

But if they think of what a lot of the rest of us see as existential issues as being beyond the voters’ comprehension, I wonder how they view an equally important question: How? By which I mean that lofty visions and even good strategies don’t answer the question of how you’re going to go about actually getting things done – swiftly, efficiently, responsibly, accountably. 

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Like HOW you’re going to avoid another Heck-of-a-job-Brownie moment. HOW you’re going to bring us energy independence. HOW you’re going to secure a peaceful Middle East. HOW you’re going to end aggressive extremism. HOW you’re going to execute your health care plan, put better teachers in smaller classes, and all the rest.  

Dealing with the HOW is arguably even more important than figuring out the WHAT. HOW you’re going to implement good strategies raises issues of leadership and management. It’s about bringing people into government who are not merely loyal or ideologically driven, but able and experienced. Grown-ups who have proven track records in the kinds of jobs they’re getting appointed to. And who have demonstrable records of integrity and leadership. 

A new president has the authority to make more than 3,000 “political” appointments. But political appointees don’t necessarily have to be synonymous with party hacks or ideologues.  That there will have to be some of those is a given – the person who lands in the Oval Office inevitably has lots of political favors to repay.  

But, beyond what should be a relative few, a president’s ability to lead the government will depend on his ability to find and attract those who know how to manage the government. Who are willing to accept personal accountability for their performance. And who know how to use the institutional memories of our civil servants – our bureaucracy – to participate professionally in the execution of good plans and policies. 

Why am I so hung up on the importance of HOW?  

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Well, I had the privilege of sweeping into the nation’s capital as a very minor player with “the best and the brightest” who followed John F. Kennedy to the presidency. I saw first-hand how the best of the brightest showed their leadership qualities by motivating our career civil servants by respecting their aggregate knowledge and experience. How they looked to the permanent government cadre to help craft practical plans and goals and to organize their work to optimize their chances of achieving those goals. 

I also saw the converse. I saw too many bright people in too many very senior positions who believed that each of their brilliant ideas was brand-new. Who became almost delusional about their mission to reinvent government. Who became intellectually corrupted by the power they thought they wielded.  

And I saw those people fail. 

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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