We Need a Reality Show to Help Us Pick Our President

I know you think I’m joking, but I’m really, really not. Although, I guess I should use the proper Emmy parlance and say we need a “realty-competition program” versus the voyeuristic hell currently masquerading as our democracy.

Make it work.

Why? Because I’m pretty sure anyone who’s seen fourteen episodes of Project Runway has a better sense of the contestants’ design skills — not to mention what it takes to be a top designer — than most Americans currently have about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton’s ability to be president…much less what the job of President of the United States actually entails. I’d say our process for selecting presidents makes about as much sense as holding a football game to determine America’s Next Top Model, but it’s worse than that.

Yes, presidents give speeches, but what exactly does that have to do with being president? Hell, George Washington is, quite possibly, our only universally revered president and he is almost universally regarded as having been a crummy public speaker. I know…I know…television wasn’t a staple of the 1790s, but please tell me what a candidate’s ability to rally a crowded arena reveals about his or her ability to manage a national crisis or hammer out a budget agreement with the Speaker of the House. Because, I don’t know about you, but I know more than a few brilliant public speakers who suck in small group settings.

Ten years ago, former senator Tom Daschle encouraged Barrack Obama to run for president before he accumulated too much “Washington experience,” because yes, in the parallel universe in which our campaign coverage exists, experience is not considered a quality that might make someone a better president.

I mean, can you even imagine a “political roundtable” discussing how the concerns raised about the way Hillary Clinton used email as Secretary of State might inform her hypothetical administration’s communications practices or how Donald Trump’s bankruptcies might impact his approach to economic policy? No, you can’t, because our election-mindset doesn’t allow for the possibility that a mistake might be a thing a human candidate learns from. Instead, the known political world tosses those mistakes about like sportscasters, considering whether or not a gymnast’s choice of music might impact her score on floor exercise.

We’re drawn to candidates who deliver full-throated endorsements of our pet policy positions, while vilifying the Hillary Clintons of the world, when they only offer us their “measured support.” And why not? I mean, who doesn’t want a president who’ll publicly tell you you’re right about the things you care about. But, you see, the thing is, if you want a president who’ll do more than publicly agree with you — who, you know, might actually deliver on those policy positions — then you might want to consider the fact that publicly declaring everything you want to get out of a negotiation is usually a really terrible negotiating strategy. Or — to put it another way — who do you think will negotiate a better deal on a car, the guy who walks into a dealership and declares, “I love this car. I’ll do anything to get this car and I just promised my millions of supporters that I am going to buy this car,” or the person who says “I like this car, but…”?

Senator Mitch McConnell once declared that when it came to the President’s agenda, his caucus was “going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” But you couldn’t understand why Hillary was occasionally vague about her support for various policy positions?

The airwaves are currently filled with pundits calling Hillary Clinton a “flawed candidate.” But, let’s be real. If Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, it’s because she cared more about governing than winning and personally, I think that reveals a lot more flaws in the way we judge candidates than it does in Hillary Clinton.

This afternoon, I was told that millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump, because they are “fed up with the establishment.” But what exactly do most Americans know about the establishment? I mean really?

An impressive young political science student recently told me that she didn’t think she was “slimy enough” to work in Washington. Yes, that’s the picture that even young idealistic students have of government work. Which sucks, because aside from the fact that discouraging non-slimy people from going into politics is a terrible reform strategy, it’s just not true.

I lived and worked in Washington, DC for 15 years, including two years at the White House and ten years on Capitol Hill and I can tell you that while there are some slime balls in that town, they’re vastly outnumbered by good, hard working, decent people — on both sides of the aisle — who work crazy hours, under insane circumstances, for not a lot of pay because, you know what? They give a damn.

No, all lobbyists ARE NOT evil. Elected officials really do pay attention when their constituents take the time to pick up the phone or write a well-reasoned letter. Working for a company before moving on to a career in government service DOES NOT mean said person is in said company’s pocket. Because — believe it or not — working for a flawed industry has inspired more than a few people to leave the industry in search of a way to fix those flaws. And you know what? Having industry experience has even been known to make government regulators MORE effective at sussing out what they’re doing wrong. And while I realize the word recess suggests time on the playground, most members of Congress work LONGER HOURS during Congressional recess periods than when Congress is in session.

And yet, the average American never hears those things or learns about those people.

I’ve heard the arguments for “adversarial journalism,” and while I agree that journalists must, at times be adversarial, I don’t believe the stick works without the carrot, which is a problem given that our news media seems fundamentally incapable of covering the non-scandalous aspects of government, at least not when it comes to campaigns. And as I once asked Pierre Omidyar, “What would the world think of eBay if he’d only allowed users to leave negative reviews?” (I’m pretty sure we’d have a pretty low opinion of eBay.)

Yes, there’s a reason the world thinks Washington is an unmitigated disaster and our recent political election was a competition between two super-flawed choices. That’s how the entity that moderates our elections presented the choice.

So, we need a new moderator. And while, I initially cringed at the idea of developing an election-based reality show, the more I think about it, the more I think the nation would genuinely benefit from seeing candidates compete to do things like: reach a budget agreement, determine the best response to a hypothetical terrorist attack and bring competing interest groups together to recognize their mutual interests.

We’d get to see how candidates think, who they call when they need help and whether or not they have learned from past mistakes, while — of course — getting a sense of the many ways that government actually does make our lives better. And who knows? Just as reality shows have inspired viewers to buy sewing machines, take up cooking and pursue careers in movie make-up, maybe, just maybe, our program would get people to stop trying to “fix” government by electing bombastic outsiders who hate government and you know, start thinking about what THEY can do for their country.


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