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Presidential Simulations: A Better Basis for Choosing Our Leaders

Andrew Schmookler
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In 2008, we Americans will pick a new president. But how will we make our decision?

We’ll look at the candidates’ records, but they’ll have no record showing how they’d act as president.

We’ll listen to their stump speeches, but those are invariably more like advertisers’ pitches than genuine windows into their minds.

We’ll watch them debate, but the present debates mostly flush out their talking points.

Wouldn’t it be good if –before we hire someone to guide our country through these dangerous times—we citizens could get a meaningful look at how the candidates perform as president? As is demonstrated so powerfully by the film Thirteen Days (about the Cuban Missile Crisis), the fate of our civilization can depend on a president’s ability to navigate strategically through the perils of the unknown.

At this very moment, the United States is paying an enormous price for the defects (in terms of competence as well as of morality) in the decision-making process of our current president.

So wouldn’t it be good if we could see how well those running for the presidency can ask the necessary questions of the appropriate people, probe to get the relevant information, and make good decisions?

Well, we can. It’s time for us to institute a new tradition in our presidential campaigns: along with the debates, we should institute televised presidential simulations.

There have been televised simulations before. In the 1980s, ABC television teamed up with a major foreign-policy think tank to conduct simulations in which former high government officials in the national security field participated.

In such simulations, the participants are delivered news of some emerging crisis in the world. The group then seeks to learn as much as possible about the situation and to decide how to respond. News continues to come in, at intervals during the course of the simulation, and how the group responds also influences how the crisis unfolds.

It is possible to conduct a good and realistic simulation, and the participants seem to have no difficulty treating the simulated events with the utmost seriousness.

In the context of a presidential campaign, each candidate who meets some agreed-upon threshold of support in the polls would be the head of a group of advisors selected by him/herself to form an acting “National Security Council.” Each candidate would be free, as presidents are, to run the group as s/he wishes.

The simulations might last for, say, two days (with time off, presumably, for sleep). The deliberations of each group could be continuously televised on a specific C-Span station, available for any American to watch. The other news media could provide what they regard as the important highlights.

For the elections of 2008, there will be no incumbent in the race. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees will be people who have never wielded the great power of the Oval Office. And so this coming presidential election season is an ideal time to inaugurate this idea of presidential simulations.

A crucial issue here is the design of the simulation. The simulations should be designed by people with deep knowledge of international relations, terrorism, diplomacy, or whatever are the realms being simulated. In addition, all necessary steps should be taken to assure that the design of the simulations has integrity and does not stack the deck in favor of one side.

As the questions asked in presidential debates are chosen by presumably neutral parties, so also should the simulation be constructed by people without a partisan agenda. If the neutrality of individuals cannot be assumed, then the group that designs the simulation should comprised of people representative of the various perspectives of the best thinking in the relevant fields.

For the American people, such televised simulations would be immensely helpful. Presently, citizens see scarcely an unscripted moment in the whole campaign. A simulation would give us a chance to see how the candidates behave when –as in the real world—events are not under their complete control. This would give us a chance to see how well equipped they are --intellectually, emotionally, interpersonally-- to captain of our ship of state.

Because of their long duration, the simulations promise to reveal still more about the candidates. Experience has shown that, if the cameras run long enough, people gradually stop acting like they are on stage and they start being themselves. It is one thing to stay formal and self-conscious for a campaign appearance, or even for an hour-and-a-half debate. But --as the camera runs for, say, two twelve-hour days-- it would be harder not to show the real person.

The choice of our commander-in-chief is too important to buy a pig in a poke. Let’s institute these simulations to give us a better idea of just what these candidates really bring to the job.

Some may say that --because the candidates won’t want to take the risk of revealing so much-- such a proposal is not politically feasible. But who’s in charge here: the American people or the people they hire to run their government?

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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