The most distressing aspect of the whole Mitt Romney “47 percent controversy” is that, if we’re wide awake, it absolutely has to make us wonder whether our current electoral processes really do deliver to us, for the General Election, the two best candidates in the country who might serve as president of the United States.
In fact, I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to why so many of us are not excited by either candidate, and asking myself how we, as a nation, can move toward having a better-qualified, more-impressive list of presidential aspirants.
The problem can probably be traced back to our willingness to conduct our most important elections as if we were all still living in 1787, when the Constitution was signed.
It's clear that the responsibilities of the president of the United States today are infinitely more complicated than when George Washington first held down that job, about 225 years ago. I’m pretty confident in saying there’s virtually nothing that we do today the same way that we did back then. We're not the same country, by any stretch of the imagination.
Think about it: Poverty levels are historically high; mortgage foreclosures are a routine occurrence; homelessness is rampant, even for veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pension funds have been underfunded at alarming levels; prices of gasoline and food are frighteningly high and increasing on a daily basis. For the first time in U.S. history, the life expectancy of American citizens is actually declining from year-to-year. And, American women now rank 41st in that category, among countries that comprise the United Nations.
There’s growing evidence that racial and ethnic tensions and hate crimes are all on the rise. And, if all that weren’t enough domestically, it’s even worse for us overseas, where the U.S. seems to be substantially less influential than it once was. Other nations are “eating our economic lunch” in manufacturing and technology, and growing numbers of Middle Eastern and North African nations are demonstrating outright hostility — including the burning of American flags and embassy buildings.
Despite all of that, we’re still selecting our country’s top elected officials in the same way we did when men were still wearing powdered wigs, when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and when virtually no one on earth believed that China, Brazil or India would ever be seen as global powers.
Being president of the United States during such tumultuous times is unquestionably a big job. And yet, in a time when even mid-size, not-for-profit agencies and for-profit corporations routinely conduct national searches to identify candidates who are best qualified to run their operations, the United States of America still selects its "CEO" without benefit of a generally agreed upon set of strategic objectives, without any clear delineation of the skill set required to do the job, without even a formal job description.
Instead of a skill set, the President has an embarrassingly short list of "qualifications." You probably remember them from your fifth-grade civics classes: Candidates for president must be natural-born citizens of the United States, they must be a resident of the country for at least 14 years, and they must be at least 35 years of age.
Surprisingly, with the largest national budget in the Western world, a presidential candidate needs no special financial management skill set to qualify. With the country in constant economic turmoil, the candidate for U.S. president is not required to have any specific understanding of micro- or macro-economics. Elastic demand? In-elastic demand? Whatever.
To aspire to manage the institution that is the world's largest employer, a presidential candidate needs to demonstrate no prior management experience to “throw his hat in the ring.”
The South rising up, again, against the North? Whites organizing against Blacks? Asians not getting along with Hispanics? Foreign dignitaries trying to beat the country down at the negotiating table?
No sweat! If you want to be a presidential candidate, prior experience in negotiating, mediating, making peace or minimizing hostility through personal leadership is simply not required.
Is there another critical job anywhere in the country with so much responsibility that requires so little from the applicants? How else do you explain the diverse group of obnoxious, low-potential underachievers that we had to endure for so many months during the recent Republican Primary Election process?
Why did we have to sit, or sleep, through Rick Santorum, Newt Gingwrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Michele Bachman and Rick Perry, when there certainly must have been another process available to narrow down the field to have a better-experienced, more-capable group of potential candidates?
Suppose, for example, we had a process in place wherein we actually established a job description and a desired set of skills for the next president, and conducted a national search, digitally, for people who actually matched those criteria, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.
Wouldn’t we come up with thousands of high-potential candidates from which to select? Didn’t LinkedIn, as far back as January 2011, claim to have 44 million mostly professional U.S. people in its membership base?
No, what we do instead is “suffer fools gladly," even as we say we’re selecting the person to fill the most important job in the country. Even worse, in the absence of real criteria or any minimum standards, we have turned this critical process over to the mainstream media, especially to cable TV networks.
In the absence of other substantive criteria, it is the media outlets that schedule the debates, that create the issues-of-the-day, and that drive candidates who bore them, or who don’t cooperate with them, out of the race.
In presidential campaigns driven by broadcast media, we wind up with discussions about which candidate is the most telegenic, which has the best “presidential hair,” which is the tallest, and which is prepared to do a successful interview with Katie Couric.
It’s not a surprise, therefore, that we wind up, through such a process, with a man on the Democratic side named Barack Obama who, aside from his complexion, is scarcely distinguishable, on an issues basis, from the average Republican. And, on the Republican side, we were left, when all was said and done, with a man named Mitt Romney, a candidate who seems remarkably ill-at-ease, given the lofty position he aspires to, and a candidate who can’t seem to control a terrible tendency to say insulting, condescending, and disrespectful things to large numbers of the people that he needs to vote for him.
It’s not working anymore.
At this late date, with so much at risk, America doesn’t really need a Republican candidate whose job it is to appeal to the “right,” or a Democratic candidate whose job it is to appeal to the “left.”
In fact, the two-major-party-approach to leadership selection is probably the single most divisive factor in creating, finally, a true United States of America — or a true “united Pennsylvania" or a true "united Los Angeles."
We need the people of this country to put down, both, their "elephant" buttons and their "donkey" buttons and offer a description of the most important tasks they’d like to see the next president accomplish, over his four-year term. Then, we need to reduce those objectives to a valid job description, for use in conducting a national search for the candidate we need to run our country.
If we come up with 40, 50 or 17 of them, at least we’ll know they’ll all be qualified to get the job done.
Once we’ve accomplished all of that, it will finally be time to vote. It shouldn’t take very long, and it can’t be anywhere near as painful or non-productive as what we currently have.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.