The news is so disturbing that I’m starting to click on links like “Ed McMahon Takes New Job As Rapper” and “Five Reasons NOT to Go on a Date” just to get away from headlines blaring about bailouts… of all kinds, including bailouts from the profound duty that candidates for high office have to communicate with the people who actually make the decisions for this country — We the People, we, the voters. When did we become a sideshow? When did the whole point of communicating with the voters become less important than strutting around Washington, which only last month was declared to be a place that candidates should avoid at all cost? Now everyone’s rushing back to the very Washington they trashed. Lot of good it has done, though. The “bailout plan” is still a mess, apparently, as of tonight’s news — in all the rushing back and posturing before cameras, nobody has shown the kind of leadership that’s most essential — the leadership that can organize a group to move to consensus in spite of many differences.
There’s more than one crisis going on now — the financial crisis is real, yes, and deeply complicated and unlikely to have any easy solutions. But an even graver crisis looms in the potential wreckage of the very fundamentals of our democracy, the impairment of the essential rights of voters to have full and frequent exposure to the ideas, positions, stamina, quirks, ideologies and temperaments of the candidates. The idea that one of the major party candidates can simply suspend his presidential campaign and call off a scheduled debate is an insult to the voters who deserve this debate under the current circumstances more than ever.
This is not about favoring one candidate over another; this is about favoring the people over the arrogance of political postures. All candidates and their parties need to be less about themselves and more about the people they wish to serve. Power resides in the people in a democracy — so the theorists tell us. Great leaders in times like this honor and respect the intelligence, commitment and fundamental role of the electorate as the central reason why we even have this form of government. Great leaders make an even greater effort to communicate directly with the citizens, the people who must be informed particularly in times of stress. Great leaders do not foment fear — all that talk of how “scared” we all should be right now is a terrible example of leadership. Instead, in the poignant words of the late John Gardner, “The first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive.” (No Easy Victories)
We the People — we have a right to hear every single presidential debate. We have a right to see the candidates campaign. We have a right to expect the candidates to undergo thorough scrutiny, through media interviews, town hall meetings, direct exposure to the voters in many forums. There are plenty of smart people in Washington right now who can work on the bailout plan —-God help them, may they find wisdom and courage and astute forms of compromise — but there are only a few candidates for the highest office in the land, and they do us and this democracy a disservice if they retreat from public engagement at the very moment when we need to see them the most.
Let the debates begin!