The first debate perpetuated a huge national misconception about Presidential debates and the job of a leader in general. The two candidates evidently prepped mightily, trying to learn all the facts they could about the economy, the country, and the government, but the sheer amount of data that they were clearly both filled with got in the way of their ability to speak cogently about national issues. As a result, they retained a random assortment of facts that they came back to again and again without offering much in the way of a context that would have helped us, the audience, to make sense of them.
It’s not the responsibility of a leader to memorize every fact that might possibly be important in some debate, hypothetical or real. It is the responsibility of a leader to know where he or she wants to take the organization or the country.
To articulate that you need not facts, but perspective to put those facts into context. And you need a narrative to make the perspective and facts memorable.
Governor Romney gave us the $716 billion figure – at least 10 times by my count – and President Obama kept coming back to the $5 trillion number. But what did those numbers mean? The first one had something to do with Medicare, and the second something about tax cuts. But how important are they, really? And how could we weigh the relative merits of the two arguments? Facts don’t mean much without context, and the two candidates were unable to provide much context, so dazzled were they by those pesky facts.
To be sure, each candidate asserted that his way was better, but we expect them to say things like that, and don’t find them very persuasive.
Here’s how the candidates should proceed to prep for their remaining debates. The challenger, Governor Romney, should take the familiar Republican perspective that government has grown too big and intrusive, so that it has become part of the problem. Growing the economy, then, comes down to shrinking government and letting the private sector loose. Within that perspective, the $716 billion figure is incoherent, because it is a fact that supports the perspective of a bigger government, not a smaller one.
Instead, Governor Romney should be taking a few well-chosen stats about how vast the government is in order to buttress his perspective. (The debt, if it were stacked in one dollar bills, would reach all the way to the moon…and back…6 times, as Ronald Reagan famously said. It must be at least 18 times by now.) And perhaps a few stats about how much wealth the private sector can create.
Then, he needs to wrap that perspective with a story, a Quest story about how he’s going to lead the country back to greatness. He needs to paint the picture of the goal of that Quest in alluring terms, as candidate Reagan did so well 2 decades ago, describing:
. . . a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
Now, that’s a goal that plenty of voters would be willing to work toward. A surfeit of facts will not make that goal anymore alluring than it already is. We expect the Quest journey to be difficult – that’s the nature of the story – but we persevere because the goal is so important to us.
President Obama, for his part, should take the perspective that in tough times we need to pull together rather than separately, and help each other get through the present difficulties. We need a little more government now, so that we can mitigate the negative effects of the recession, but when the economy improves, then we can turn the governmental spigots back down to a gentler flow.
Within that perspective, the $5 trillion figure is incoherent because it makes the case that Romney is proposing to be too generous (for the wealthy, yes, but still) with government money. Instead, President Obama should be uttering a few stats about how many families the government can help, how many children it has kept fed or out of poverty or how many college graduates it has supported.
Then, he needs to wrap that perspective in a Stranger in a Strange Land story. In this story, he came to office in a time of unprecedented economic difficulty, one of a sort not seen before, at least since the Great Depression. A melt-down, with credit disappearing, homeowners and car dealers unable to get credit, small businesses denied loans, and so on.
The President needs to offer us a way out of the Strange Land, or at least a way to navigate it successfully. He needs to offer some novel programs in government investment or help for the unemployed, perhaps, that will help us get through this difficult terrain. Once we’re through, then we can return to the balanced budget and more restrained economics of the Clinton years.
It’s a cliché that leaders need vision. But what they don’t tell leaders-in-training is that to bring a vision to life you need a powerful, fundamental story, one that all your employees or fellow citizens can understand and embrace. It’s not the job of leaders to know everything. It is the job of leaders to articulate a story with a deep, recognizable structure – a Quest, or a Stranger in a Strange Land – and a clear perspective. These stories are deeply embedded in our culture and are instantly familiar to all sentient debate watchers.
That’s how your handlers should help you prepare for your big debates – by getting you straight on what your perspective is and what story you want to tell your audience.