Ask the right questions of the candidates
There's no shortage of "unconventional" candidates running for everything from city council to president (see the political newcomer Candace Avalos and technologist Andrew Yang, respectively). What's lacking is a good way to judge them.
In the coming months, voters will continue to learn a tremendous amount about these aspiring leaders. For example, they'll learn about a candidate's significant other (or "Boo," in the words of senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker), their proverbial "skeletons," and their main political "victories."
It's true that voters will glean some important facts from these sorts of questions. An additional line of questioning, however, would improve the ability of voters to identify the best candidate.
Oregon voters have a history of considering these sorts of candidates. From third-party candidates (such as Patrick Starnes' 2018 Independent Party run for governor) to political aspirants from underrepresented communities (see Maurine Neuberger, the 10th woman elected to the U.S. Senate), Oregonians have practiced identifying the qualifications of a great leader in a variety of candidates.
Here are just a few of the questions that Oregonians have historically relied on and that should be used again by all Americans to find the best candidates — although perhaps not the traditional ones:
– What's your biggest failure as a public official or community leader?
– When you last spotted a failing policy or program, how did you respond?
– Why will your White House (or city council) tenure be an example of government innovation?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's legacy highlights the importance of repeated and rapid failure to a successful elected official. Revered by Democrats for creating the modern welfare state, FDR's style of governance enabled him to find the right policies and programs for a transformative era. Experimentation in Roosevelt's administration gave birth to programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and investments like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
FDR's comfort with being wrong earlier in the pursuit of being right sooner spread throughout the White House. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, FDR challenged his staff to toss out new ideas, test them quickly and report back. They followed his example and dreamed up radical schemes. Some, like, the CCC were fantastic; others, such as packing the Supreme Court, were less appropriate. Nonetheless, this approach gave the White House the flexibility required to respond to unprecedented threats and opportunities.
It's an approach Oregonians know well.
"Let us, too, be willing enough, keen enough (and) frank enough to project our imagination ahead toward future needs," Gov. Mark Hatfield urged in his 1959 inaugural address. "Let us be tolerant enough to bow to our colleagues' ideas and humble enough to change our solutions when they fail to serve."
Gov. Hatfield's appeal to his colleagues epitomized a generation of Oregon leaders comfortable with failure in the name of progress. This approach to governing produced some of Oregon's most well-known officials — such as Sen. Wayne Morse — and long-lasting legislation — like the bottle bill.
Today, Oregon and America at large again face novel problems that require new solutions. Yet, the present presidential administration's focus on "winning" is diametrically opposed to what should be the government's main focus in uncertain times — learning. We've also seen some Oregon officials scare from taking on big issues such as climate change simply because doing so seems too politically risky and too operationally difficult.
By learning, experimenting, and continuously improving, federal, state and local governments will have a stronger handle on what they can do to help Americans adjust to a global and digital economy. The nation's next president and Oregon's next leaders needs to know how to oversee these sorts of processes. Oregonians must take the initiative to start the rounds of questions centered on this critical leadership trait.
The modern campaign provides little space for candidates to discuss their failures. Candidates fill their speeches and social media accounts with examples of their big wins: the new infrastructure project they oversaw, the minimum wage bill they pushed through and the regulation they helped enforce. These are significant achievements that deserve respect and praise, but these achievements tell voters nothing about how these leaders will respond to novel problems.
There's one upside to a campaign cycle that's too long — voters will have innumerable opportunities to ask candidates about their approach to failure. Members of the media will similarly be well positioned to get to the heart of how candidates will foster creativity, experimentation and failure in their White House or on their school board.
After all, the nation and Oregon don't need leaders who think "winning" is synonymous with governing. Instead, Americans and Oregonians need decades of leaders that heed Hatfield's call "to change our solutions when they fail to serve." This election season can be the start.
Tualatin native Kevin Frazier is a student at the University of California's Berkeley law school
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