In just two days, we will vote to elect a new president. But as I look forward at the next four years, it seems obvious that regardless of who wins the White House, true and new leadership is required even more in both houses of Congress. I have what I’m sure many would consider a naïve belief: The most powerful event that might change or determine voters' minds even in these 48 hours before the election has nothing to do with Barak Obama & Joe Biden nor Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan. Rather, a Democratic win could be had if only Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would announce that they each plan to step down from their respective leadership positions for the next term and support a new generation of Democratic leaders. Now that would be true leadership.
Conventional wisdom currently states that under either a President Obama or a President Romney, the Senate and House of Representatives will maintain the status quo: A Republican-led House that won its majority by complaining about all the laws Pelosi, Reid and their caucus counterparts “shoved down our throats” before it proceeded continuing to pass social legislation that remains unpopular with the majority of the nation; and a Democratic-led Senate with a majority that can’t pass anything due to an archaic and ridiculous rule (not constitutionally-based law, mind you) that allows for the possibility of 41 Senators who cumulatively represent less than 15% of the national population to kill any bill they like. (Roughly 80% of the 50 states have smaller populations than New York City, and yet, they all have two senators each.)
A major theme of this presidential campaign has focused on the very idea of "leadership." Both President Obama and Governor Romney continue to present their cases for the leadership qualities they each possess and have demonstrated during their careers. Leaders are people who make the tough decisions, even when unpopular. Leaders are people who will take responsibility for what occurs under their watches. Experts -- who may include former "successful" leaders and people who study "leadership" -- give lectures and write books on the qualities that make good leaders.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the collective media punditry has stated that Obama has shown good leadership and "looked presidential." They have declared that this election’s “October Surprise” was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s making positive remarks about working with the nation’s president to save people after a natural disaster. This week arguably changed the Romney momentum (real or not) the press has focused upon since the first debate, when Romney had the opportunity to “look presidential” and show that he was a leader willing to make those tough, but rational, decisions.
I wonder if collectively we often look to our leaders for the wrong things. I wonder if too many people confuse “leadership” with basic confidence -- and often arrogance -- to wield power. Too often, we simply think that leaders are people we want to follow; who we entrust to make decisions; who will listen to their advisers but at the end of the day be smart enough to ignore them if necessary, make the decision on their own and bear the responsibility. (Whatever that actually means.)
But I think one of -- if not the -- most important qualities in a leader is to recognize he or she no longer effectively leads and, in fact, instead creates obstacles through action or progress by his/her very presence. I’d like to see leaders know when to sacrifice themselves; when to step down from their positions of power and influence so that more can actually be accomplished.
And this brings me back to Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid. Both leaders have long been lightning rods for Republican attacks. Would their leaving the leadership help people like Obama more? No. But leading the Democrats into a new era featuring fresh, exciting, energetic leadership simply by stepping out of the way might help. I realize this statement is the same kind of broad generalization politicians on both side make too regularly, however, I'm pretty sure that voters don't want to continue watching a simple seesaw in Congress that produces constant gridlock.
Ms. Pelosi has been an historic leader of the Democratic Party. She deserves acclaim for and should be proud of what she accomplished, not only breaking the glass ceiling to the Speakership, but also keeping her caucus together and passing important and significant legislation. But the Democrats' biggest mistake after losing the House in 2010 was reelecting Ms. Pelosi as leader, and the best example of her worst leadership moment was not taking the hint from the electorate after Republicans used her in their campaigns to win an overwhelming majority of House seats.
I don’t believe the problem in our federal government lies in the White House. With 90% of our country disapproving of this Congress, I'd wager most people might agree with me. As we saw through eight years of George W. Bush and now magnified to even greater degree throughout the Obama administration, the modern presidency seems to possess two modes: Regular overreach through the use of executive power; or, the lack of true agency due to congressional obstructionism.
Of course, the legislative branch exists to provide a check to presidential power, and yet we consistently see that check misused. I understand that we vote for our representatives and then they vote for the caucus leaders. Theoretically, that should work. But we're not a parliamentary system, and so everything doesn't line up so nicely. Our system was developed in another age when the gaps between the most and least populous states was in the hundred-thousands, not the multi-millions. Why is the most powerful member of the Senate a man who won election thanks to just shy of 363,000 votes? That’s about 14% of the population of Nevada, a state with approximately 2/3 of 1% of the country's population and less than 40% of the population of New York City. But our 18th century governmental structure designed during an era when states virtually remained separate countries -- and several eventually tried to form a new nation -- is another column entirely.
According to polling, roughly 10% of the country somehow (stupidly) approves of Congress, and yet, incumbents continue to generally win. Why? Because we all only vote for our own representative. He/she isn't the problem, right? We still like our own representative, which is how he/she wound-up in Congress in the first place. Like most things in America, we tend to have very strong beliefs about all sorts of issues … outside our own backyards.
But wouldn't a sea change in congress be nice? Wouldn't it be wonderful to see some real progress; to see laws passed due to actual compromise and debate rather than demagoguery and defiance? The extremist wings of both parties will never compromise on anything; sometimes, it’s hard to believe that the spectrum within either party could actually arrive at one decision, but maybe that’s what we need: One party to truly have the ability to enact its agenda. (The argument that the Democrats ever truly had a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate during the first two years of the Obama administration lacks reality-based nuance.) And then what might happen? Things will work! Or, we will see they don't? But they won’t be avoided because they are determined politically nonviable. And if those representatives fail, then we vote them out and try again.
That’s not how our society comprised with apathetic non-voters as well as what the media now calls “low information voters” (a/k/a "sheep") on both sides act or think. People don’t vote out their own representatives if they don’t have to. We want everyone else to realize that their choices have created the problem.
Of course, who am I to play all high and mighty? As a registered Democrat who certainly leans left-of-center, I’ll be casting my ballots for Kirsten Gillibrand and Hakeem Jeffries. Well, at least Jeffries will be a new face in Washington.
I suppose the same proposal could be made to Senator Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner; that stepping down might encourage some of those independents and undecideds to vote Republican. For the American people to see two of the nation’s most powerful exhibit true leadership by putting the governing process before their own desires for power while also recognizing that others could be as (and even more) effective than they are could lead to a truly dramatic change. As I’m rooting for the left, I’d rather see the departures of Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid; not from Congress, but from their leadership posts.
This is not a new idea, really. Why, none other than George Washington decided that for the good of this nation -- born out of a desire to eschew monarchy -- he would voluntarily step down from power after two terms and just eight years. Sure the circumstances are different, but wouldn't it be wonderful to watch Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid follow in the footsteps of one of our most revered founding fathers? Maybe even some Tea Partiers would appreciate such a gesture.
Lip service aside, neither Ms. Pelosi nor Mr. Reid remain in their leadership positions for any reason other than their desire to retain power. Any argument that their pros outweigh the cons simply exposes their individual egotism and hubris. Is Ms. Pelosi truly the only of 191 Democrats who can effectively and best lead the House caucus? Is Mr. Reid truly the only of 53 Democrats who can effectively and best lead the Senate caucus? How refreshing would it be to see them each support the ascendancy of other next-generation Democrats? Maybe someone new to or not even a part of the current leadership. (Yes, that means I’m not in favor of my own representative, Senator Chuck Schumer, becoming Senate leader.)
True leadership shows itself when leaders place themselves secondary to those they lead. Even with the best intentions, a leader may not always be the best choice to lead at a given moment. That moment came and went two years ago during the Tea Party Republican landslide for the two most powerful Democrats in Washington who don’t call themselves “President.” They are not indispensable; in fact, they are roadblocks to any significant progress. If only they were true leaders who recognized how their departures from power could send a forceful message and provide a greater lasting impact than anything they can accomplish from their seats of power.