Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Terry Newell Headshot

The Presidential Debates: Five Questions to Help Select a President

Posted: Updated:

As Americans consider who to elect as president, they naturally look for leadership. That's not enough. America is awash in leadership -- people who excite followers and can wield power and influence. What we need is statesmanship -- action that puts party orthodoxy, position, and personal agendas in their proper place in order to serve the long-term needs of society. We also need a president with character. "Character is the only secure foundation of the state," Calvin Coolidge said. But how can we spot such a candidate?

Perhaps a debate moderator could ask these questions:

1. What are two key lessons from history that will guide you as president?

Presidents who lack historical perspective are like drivers who never look in the rear-view mirror. Washington entered the presidency with no precedents to guide him. Yet he modeled himself after Cincinnatus, the Roman peasant who answered the call of his country but then retired to his farm rather than keeping power. He showed that republican government did not need a king. A candidate's response to this question may show us whom he admires, what he has learned from the past (or failed to learn), whether he has drawn the wrong lessons, and whether there is anything more than surface platitudes in his historical judgments.

2. How will Article II of the Constitution guide your daily activities as president?

It's fashionable to quote the Constitution to win a political argument. But that is to use the Constitution as an instrument, not necessarily to understand it. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon under Article II, Section 2. But it was the Constitution's Preamble -- with its promise of "domestic tranquility" that drove Ford's thinking. Ford understood that his job involved thinking about what the Constitution means and what it required of him. A candidate whose only response is some version of: "As president, my job is to lead the Executive Branch and work with the Congress," shows that he cannot think constitutionally -- he does not really "get" his job description. If asked, during a debate, to recite the Preamble, could a candidate do it?

3. What is a hard truth that you would like to tell the American people?

Candidates are used to saying predictable things to friendly audiences. Yet complex problems don't lend themselves to easy and popular answers. In Lincoln's Second Inaugural, he castigated the nation (and himself) for slavery, even though his audience was ready to take out their vengeance on the nearly-defeated rebels. As he later remarked, "it was a truth that I thought needed to be told." Americans need a truth-telling president. That takes moral courage, since speaking the truth can lead to a loss of support. The answer to this question -- especially if it is ducked -- will tell us whether a candidate has that moral courage.

4. In previous leadership roles, how did you encourage dissent?

As Truman observed, "the buck stops here." Unfortunately, the information a president needs often stops before the buck does. Followers withhold what they suspect the president doesn't want to hear, is counter to their own views or would expose their failings. A president who can't institutionalize dissent risks "yes-men." Kennedy made this mistake in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He avoided it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He learned how to ensure robust argument in decision making.

5. How will you repair the relationships and lack of trust between Congress and the presidency?

Statesmanship requires the ability to forge relationships and trust, which combined make political progress on tough issues possible. In our current political climate, the lack of trusting relationships between Capitol Hill and the White House has turned the debt, deficit, economic progress and entitlement reform into seemingly intractable problems where ideology takes the place of pragmatism. When Secretary of State George C. Marshall, serving under a Democrat, Harry Truman, in a presidential election year (1948), testified in favor of the European Recovery Program -- the Marshall Plan -- he had deliberately nurtured a relationship with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That relationship led to a serious and productive debate and eventually to passage of this historic legislation. Indeed, Congress trusted Marshall so much that, during FDR's presidency, one member advised the president that if he wanted his defense budget passed (Marshall was Army Chief of Staff at the time), he should send Marshall -- and only Marshall -- to testify.

Much of what faces the next president is unpredictable. How he will face it should not be. Character and statesmanship can be determined before we vote, if we know how to look.

Terry Newell is a retired federal civil servant and former Air Force officer. He now focuses on leadership education. His most recent book is titled 'Statesmanship, Character and Leadership in America.' His first book was 'The Trusted Leader: Building the Relationships That Make Government Work.'