I recently saw an ad for The Rachel Maddow Show on the back of a magazine. The quote ran something along the lines of: “If your big idea is ‘no we can’t,’ I don’t want you leading the country.” I’m not sure what she’s talking about, but I have some ideas.
At first thought, it would seem that leadership is built around the idea of leading “to something.” A leader must have an idea in mind of something that can be done. “No we can’t” is not an idea; it is the lack of any idea, and therefore not leadership. Put this way, it is impossible to lead on a non-idea, no one will follow, and so Maddow has nothing to worry about. I suspect, however, that “leading the country” is a euphemism for the presidency.
When it comes to the presidency, “no we can’t” isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it is mere prudence to declare on minor details that, “we can’t do that; we’ll do it a different way,” while never losing sight of the goal and continuing to press onwards. Sometimes “no we can’t” isn’t meant to be an absolute, but merely means that for many things, the way the government is structured, by the very nature of what it means to be a government, inefficiencies and corruption will set in to such a degree that the private sector will certainly do a better job, and by the government getting involved, resources will be drained that could be better used by the private sector. Historically, this has often been the case. Thus, “no we can’t” might simply be honesty. I believe John Stossel lays out some examples of this in his new book, but I have not read it. Other times, “no we can’t” might simply mean that in the capacity of president, there are some things that go beyond that role, or are perhaps even illegal. Thus, “no we can’t” might sometimes simply be honesty about the law, not a declaration that something can’t be physically done if others go along with it, or if the law is changed. The presidency is not purely a leadership position. It has a very limited role. By being part of the executive branch, it cannot make law or rule on cases, and by being part of the federal government, it cannot step outside the constitution or encroach upon states’ rights. The president is rarely an expert on everything, and being only one man (or woman) he cannot lead in all things simultaneously. “No we can’t” might simply be an admission that there are only so many hours in the day. Seth Godin describes a world where everyone is a leader in his book, Tribes. This is already becoming reality, and so the pressure is being taken off the president.
I don’t know what she meant, and I hate to read too much into it (people do the same thing to me and they are often wrong), but if my hunch is correct, it seems she does not understand why phrases similar to “no we can’t” are often used by politicians. It reminds me of those who claim the GOP is “the party of no.” The desire to do something rather than nothing, even when one doesn’t know what to do, and even when the ideas proposed would clearly make the problem worse, skews the judgment of some people. I’m not talking about a left versus right issue; I’m not a republican and I recognize that republicans sometimes make the same mistakes. I’m not just talking politics; I’m talking about a general principle of life. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best choice. This is prudence and common sense. To insist that our leaders must always have a positive action to propose for every perceived problem, rather than judging each proposal on its merits on a case-by-case basis (including the proposal to do nothing), seems wildly reckless to me. I do hope that this isn’t what these people really believe.
Hi, I'm Dan. I like chocolate, hiking, and politics.