Leaders? Leaders?? Anywhere?

The picture that’s worth a thousand words … The President travelled to Dallas, TX last week and was greeted by that city’s mayor.  Note the body language of these two: 1) the mayor is motionless, his arm locked at his side; 2) the President is in motion, and has his arm extended; 3) the distance between the two is closing, but only because the President is closing it. Seems like a metaphor for politics lately, and explains a lot.

The Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is another perfect example of trying to close the gap, and being met with a stiff armed reception.  The Democrats were in control of both houses of Congress when the bill was moving through, but they both wanted, and needed (politically, symbolically, and otherwise) to have a bi-partisan bill.  Many good ideas and options, including the single payer approach, ended up on the cutting room floor, as House and particularly Senate leadership worked toward crafting a bill that both parties could support.  In the end, however, no Republicans voted for the bill, and their opposition to the final product, which contained many of their amendments, became the justification for shutting down the government last month. As someone who spends a lot of time on Capitol Hill, I must confess that I find it increasingly challenging.  You go and talk to a staffer to try to enlist his or her boss’ support on your issue, or your bill, and you get hemming and hawing.  Much more than used to be the case … ‘well, the bill will come out of committee differently, so we’ll keep our powder dry for now,’ or his or her boss has a “complicated” district, such that taking a position will make things problematic back home.

Then, there’s the opposite of closing the gap:  I thought I had seen all kinds of cynical maneuvering in my time, but the guy in Houston who sent out campaign literature giving the impression that he was black, but who turned out not to be totally takes the cake. That is not what leadership looks like. Neither is holding the federal workforce hostage while demanding capitulation to your agenda, and neither is campaigning on the basis of things you’d like to deny people, as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli did on the gubernatorial campaign trail in opposing the expansion of Medicaid (which, for the first several years would have been entirely paid for by the federal government, by the way).

The preceding paragraph puts me in the exact posture I see too much of these days:  spending too much time talking about what you’re against, or critiquing the folks who are the antithesis. It’s not winter, but I feel spent, out of gas … like I’m running on fumes, and I attribute it very much to what I will call the “leadership vacuum.”  That’s not where I want to be, but when I look at the paralyzed Congress, passing bills that it knows have no chance –this week’s House bill is focused on letting people keep their substandard health insurance — I feel like we’ve lost our compass on the question of leadership, the qualities that comprise it, and what we derive from it.

A leader compromises.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is said, and both parties, when they had control (at the state or federal levels) of both sides of the legislature, have been guilty of excess:  forcing through bills that the other side was not given time to read; not accepting amendments; passing laws that rewarded their supporters too richly.  But the government in Iowa, with a Republican governor, and a split legislature (their congressional delegation is also evenly split, by the way) has figured out a way to work together to benefit all, including passing both income tax cuts and small business tax credits. They have also come up with a non-partisan redistricting process, which may well be the secret of their success.

A real leader exhorts people to cut the crap and get moving.  “You’re elected to be a leader. Then lead. Show us what you’re for, show us what you don’t like, but we’ve got to come to a resolution that makes sense for the entire country, and we need to have a debate in front of the American public.”  These are the words of CA Republican Rep. Jeff Denham who is expressing frustration with the lack of progress on a House immigration bill.  Denham chose to sign on to the House Democrat’s immigration bill, but also appears to be working to get other House members to do something, anything, whether supporting existing bills, or signing onto a letter that expresses commitment to moving on the issue.

Let it not be concluded on the basis of my first two choices that I think that legislatures are chock full of great leaders.  At the same time, things are so paralyzed here, that a willingness to show up and engage can’t go unremarked upon.   Leaders are not always at the top of the leadership chain.  To the contrary, they sometimes emerge in direct contrast to what so-called leadership is engaged in.  As the Senate prepares to vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act, the testimony of women like U.S. Marine and sexual assault survivor, Ariana Klay is a testament to standing up for what is right and just in the face of incredible adversity, and at tremendous personal cost.  This is what leadership looks like. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also deserves kudos for pressing ahead with a bill that some in the Congress and significant numbers in the military have come out against.  Leaders do what they believe to be right, not what is popular, or acceptable or easy. 

True leadership is transcendent.  It has a vision.  Whether or not it reaches the destination, it knows the steps needed to get there and what “there” looks like.  When Nichelle Nichols, known to many of us as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, decided to quit the series because she felt her character was increasingly being marginalized, Martin Luther King requested a meeting with her.  He told her that she could not quit, that she was in a position to influence popular culture, to change hearts and minds, and to stand as a role model for and to African Americans who had heretofore only been portrayed in ways either servile or sexualized.  Turns out MLK was right; Nichols led change, breaking down barriers and causing people everywhere to see women of color differently.  Listen to a modern day celebrity talk about  what Nichols’ role meant to her, and see how that ripples out more than 45 years after King’s assassination.

Leadership is about doing the job even when you’re not being watched (or think you’re not).   In an era where we are awash in concerns about profiling or misconduct or other less than exemplary behavior by law enforcement, witness the simple humanity of this one officer who not only didn’t know he was being recorded, but unwittingly left this gesture as a model for posterity.

True leadership knows no age.  Witness the actions of this NC 12 year-old who spoke up when the legislature pared back the ability of teens to register to vote at the DMV, and of these PA high school students who decided their school paper should no longer use the term, “Redskin,” the name of their high school mascot.

True leadership keeps at it … as the high school students described above have in the face of opposition from their principal, and as the President has in his efforts to get the Affordable Care Act on its feet, and to secure confirmation for his judicial nominees in the face of significant congressional headwinds.

In closing, I leave you with one example of the antithesis of leadership:  the sad state of affairs with respect to the proposed cuts to the SNAP program, the nation’s leading safety net program that provides food to individuals and families, many of whom are elderly, working, veterans, have disabilities, or some combination of these.  True leaders do everything they can to avoid visiting cuts like these to programs that provide minimal support (which tends to get depleted long before the month is over) to the people who most need it.