Monday, July 1, 2013

Artificial leadership

One of my favorite scenes in the film Gladiator is when Maximus is in the arena and has an opponent at his mercy. He looks to the crowd for direction, and they demand he should kill the defeated gladiator. The Emperor, Commodus, indicates likewise. However, Maximus defies the will of both and spares his vanquished foe. And the crowd loves him even more.

The look on Commodus' face as the camera cuts away is priceless--he cannot comprehend why he is despised for giving the people what they want while Maximus is loved for defying them. But Maximus knows, he defied them while appealing to their better instincts. They are better people for being defied. And somehow, they realize that.

But this post isn't about gladiators. It's about something even more vicious: politics. Specifically, political leadership.

recent article by Gabriel Schoenfeld made what I believe to be a very good point about one of the reasons Romney lost. He was trying to be someone he wasn't, trying too hard to reflect the will of the Republican establishment rather than just being himself.
Both as a candidate and as a president, George W. Bush had his share of defects. But one of the reasons he twice won presidential elections is that he was exactly who he said he was. Voters could tell, and they liked that in a leader. Both as a man and as a governor, Mitt Romney had his share of virtues, and no doubt they would have been on display had he become president. But one of the reasons he lost twice is that he was often not who he said he was. Voters could tell that, too—the artificiality of his focus-group-chosen language was often striking—and they did not like it at all. A good marketing team would have understood that packaging Mitt Romney as something he was not was a mistake. Indeed, a really good marketing team would not have packaged him at all. They would have let this impressive man be himself. 
More pertinently, this impressive man could himself have chosen to remain himself. David Frum maintains that Romney, one of the Republican Party’s “most articulate and intelligent standard-bearers in decades,” was “forced” by ideological conservatives “to jettison his own best self and best judgment.” There is of course something to this argument. Conservatives in key states, the argument continues, have a lock on the primary process. If Romney had not concealed his true moderate self and tacked to the right, he would have had little chance of capturing the Republican nomination. We cannot rerun history backward to see if such an analysis is correct. But a case can be made that voters of every stripe, including conservatives, would have had far more respect for Romney if he had resisted the conservative Siren calls to sail in their direction and, instead of posing as a “severe conservative,” had stood fast for what he believed. 
Our country’s greatest presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, did not need to bend to the whims of the electorate. By dint of their principled statesmanship, they bent the electorate to their will. They educated it. They persuaded it. They brought it along. They certainly did not need application programming interfaces to get elected and to accomplish what they accomplished. Nor did Abraham Lincoln need to hire a “messaging professional” to write the Gettysburg Address.
Which brings me to Senator Rubio. On immigration he is not making Romney's mistake. Instead, he is defying the very Tea Party support that got him elected. And he is even trying to persuade that base to follow him.

We have yet to see whether he will be successful. But Senator Rubio is demonstrating true political leadership; the sort of leadership that challenges the electorate to rise above their initial inclinations.

If Rubio succeeds, he will be a force to be reckoned with. But even if he fails, it is something other than a leadership failure. Returning again to the gladiator context, Theodore Roosevelt once said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
With the Senate passing an immigration reform bill, and the House about to take it up, now we will see whether the House Republicans are critics or doers. Regardless of the outcome, Senator Rubio has already answered that question for us.
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