Leadership Sacrificed to the Lionization of Milquetoast

Charlie Arlinghaus

April 15, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

If you’re serving in or hope to serve in high office, it would be best for you not to have opinions, show leadership, or otherwise do what might be considered your job. Leaders who lead are considered risky and bold. The political intelligentsia would advise you to be quiet, look ponderous, show grave concern, but avoid expressing too many actual opinions. Leave leadership to those in less responsible positions.

People who are old fashioned enough to believe in ideas are occasionally frustrated because nothing seems to happen. Similarly, politicians — who are rarely if ever confused with people who believe in anything — are sometimes befuddled by their inability to accomplish much. Surrounded by advisors constantly urging caution, too many putative leaders indulge themselves in regular hand-wringing about the dangers of having strong opinions.

We are used to the lionization of milquetoast on the local level and it promises to be on display regularly during the presidential campaign as well.

Anyone who has attended a speech by a would be president has noted a general trend toward platitudes and statements resplendent with bold nothingness. Carefully crafted statements of concern alternate with a call to do something — nothing specific mind you because specifics, we are told by the handlers and the suits, are a death knell. A candidate who resorts to gimmicks such as substance must have serious problems before he or she would consider such risks.

As a case in point, consider Chris Christie, current governor of New Jersey. I hold no brief for Mr. Christie but he was in New Hampshire yesterday and had the unmitigated gall to give a speech about entitlement reform. This is surely a sign, it is suggested, that he’s getting a little desperate.

A man who wants us to consider him to lead the country dares give a policy oriented speech on the single greatest economic problem facing our country. Sure, everyone knows that soon even the jellyfish lurking around Washington will have to do something about the problem they’ve been sweeping under the carpet for thirty years, but why would anyone want to talk about it?

I was mildly annoyed to read stories this week pretending that somehow a specific plan on reforming social security and other federal entitlements is bold or risky or some sort of desperate gamble that suggests a candidacy trying to right itself.

The truth is that we should demand these sorts of detailed policy speeches from candidates. It is a pathetic commentary on the lack of maturity of the American body politic that somehow substance has become a desperate Hail Mary pass.

I have no idea if I would vote for Christie or if I would endorse all the particulars of his plan. Nonetheless he should be praised for putting substance on the table again, for presenting a well thought out and responsible plan to deal with the biggest issue of the day. You needn’t support every particular to thank him for making leadership a compelling part of a campaign.

We should demand substance from pseudo-leaders at every level of government. In the process we may also be doing them a favor. Too often, people working on an issue will try to avoid talking in any detail. We are asked to appreciate the compromises and difficult decisions made with, say, a state budget without being told the details of what went into those decisions. Often we are fed vague headlines and asked to make our decision on that basis.

When details do come they run into a list of features, big and small, without any attempt to siphon through the big picture and explain why things look as they do. We are not thought of as adults who can be trusted with real information. Instead they hope we might latch on to one small thing that captures our imagination and ignore the rest.

I don’t expect to agree with political leaders. Neither I nor my fellow citizens, voters, and taxpayers will be horribly put off by some detail or another in a plan we didn’t craft. We expect to take the wheat with the chaff and decide what we think of a proposal on balance.

More than that, in a substance free political world filled with drivel-dribbling talking heads in nice ties, real leadership is remarkably unusual and unexpected. It has the effect of stunning our senses and breaking through the boredom and cynicism that numb us to political discourse.

3 replies
  1. Doug Hall says:

    Absolutely agree 100%.

    It is compounded by many in the news media who write about personality traits, glad-handing, fundraising, event planning, and anything other than policy. I include both our local media and the national media.

    For me, the best print article or TV segment to accompany one on Chris Christie’s speech would have been headlined “Entitlement reform specifics from all candidates compared.” And where a candidate had waffled on any specifics, to simply say “No ideas.”

    If the news media would be willing to get into policy specifics and educate the public a bit, maybe the handlers would finally have to say “We’ve go to do something about this ‘No idea.’ being posted next to your name for every policy issue.”

  2. Ted Maravelias says:

    Charlie- what a superbly written article. Your timely expose of the lack of specifics and substance that characterize most elected Democrats and yes even, I dare to say, the majority of Republicans, should be spread throughout New Hampshire.

    Thank you for the specifics and detailed information about our state government that you give us through your excellent work at the Josiah Batlett Center.

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