Not Why You Run For Office
I am often amazed at the disconnect that exists between a campaign for executive branch offices and the the list of things that really shape terms actually served. Successfully managing government, and the unpredictable crises that come your way is usually more vital than that stump speech that entertained rallies and chili suppers on the campaign trail.
This is difficult to explain sometimes, but lucky for you, I have a 750 word window today to get it done. I am a former governmental bureaucrat, and I was pretty good at it, according to me.
Exhibit number one is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Flint water crisis. I’m fairly certain he did not run on the platform of “most able to respond to an undrinkable water crisis.” After all, he ran for governor in Michigan, not Arizona. His state has more fresh water than any place in the world, which is what amazes me most about this one.
It’s easy to second guess it all now, but my advice to his administration at the first hint of “water trouble” anywhere in the state would have been: we can’t let that happen in Michigan. Do whatever it takes and as fast as you can to fix it. But that’s not what his team did, and Snyder is now being asked to resign over an unfathomable response to what was a clear problem many months ago.
When I worked for the State of Indiana, I was lucky enough to be there for exhibit two, Y2K. Remember that unexpected “crisis?” I was a utility regulator at the time. In a piece for Slate.com a decade later on it, Farhad Manjoo points out the amazing amount spent of both time and money to prepare our national infrastructure to prevent a disaster.
Was the $300 billion spent worldwide a gigantic waste? To some extent, absolutely. But more importantly, there was ample evidence and mystery as to what could happen, so the tech community and a long list of governments responded. There has been some lasting value in our tech markets and systems, but there was also some significant resources spent that ultimately did not need to be.
In the end though, the situation was managed well. And we were ready for the worst, which is a clear function of government. And I am not even mad any more about spending that New Year’s Eve in the control center of the state emergency management administration. That’s actually a lie. I still am a little.
For exhibit three, I can’t help but point to the crisis that has not yet happened. Our country has an important decision to make this election year. And what the candidates are selling in the presidential campaigns is more often anecdotal and philosophical then clarifying resume fodder for the real challenges of the office. Discussions of who you trust with their symbolic finger on the symbolic and ominous button, is a little helpful, but less contextual than a Flint like challenge.
Do we want Ted Cruz in charge if the Hoover Dam breaks? Or if Lake Mead goes dry? What would Donald Trump had done if he had been the boss when the financial market crash of 2008 had occurred? Remember, there is no place to file for bankruptcy. Bernie Sanders has been in the U.S. Senate for a long time, so when was the last time the buck actually stopped with him? And for good measure, Hillary Clinton actually has a record for voters to review from her time on executive branch teams. There are plenty of complaints to make there. But in the context of this specific discussion, she clearly is the least scary.
The point here is that the speeches about who is “the most” or “the real” conservative don’t mean much when a hurricane hits. And whether someone is liberal or progressive is a coffee house debate which can’t provide guidance on who can get the lead out of Flint’s water the fastest.
Government is made up of people, and the public needs good people there, especially in emergencies. And trust me, there are more emergencies that governments face than most people will ever know.
I never realized how hard managing people and crises in the government actually was until after I was done doing it. Deal making, Christian values, and Socialist government programs are speech-able goodies on the campaign trail, but in real life they tend to be the icing more often than the cake.