The Leadership Test

In early May 2007, I was an undecided voter. The one thing I was sure about is that, because global warming requires us to act immediately and the war in Iraq continues to disintegrate, this election is critical to the future of our country, more so than any other election in our history. So I spent almost a month doing research on the top three Democratic candidates because none of the Republican candidates had a viable position on global warming and all of them support President Bush on Iraq. What I found surprised me.

Ultimately, this race comes down to one word: leadership. We need leadership to get out of Iraq. We need leadership to solve global warming. We need leadership to solve our domestic issues such as health care.

The evidence I found was both clear and consistent. Throughout this campaign, John Edwards has consistently demonstrated the strong leadership skills our country needs. The other two top contenders have not.

Example #1: Rating the candidates on their leadership in getting us out of Iraq

Nothing demonstrated the disparity in leadership abilities more clearly than how the candidates handled the Senate's Iraq "blank check" funding vote on May 24, 2007. A majority of Americans want out of Iraq. All the Democratic candidates say they want out of Iraq. But I'm on all three candidates' mailing lists and I can summarize the emails they sent to their supporters after Bush vetoed the original "end the war" bill on May 1. This was the critical time for Congress and the candidates to make a key decision: stand firm or cave.

As you look at the summary of emails below, ask yourself who was the leader here: Who took a courageous stand to demand that Congress force President Bush to end the war? Who asked others to support that stand by putting pressure on Congress?

All emails to supporter base in the period from May 1 - May 24:

  • May 2: Edwards asks his supporters for money to run TV ads to urge Congress not to back down and to send President Bush the same bill over and over again. This is money out of his own campaign; instead of promoting his campaign, he's fighting for issues that he believes in.
  • May 8: Edwards ask his supporters to sign a petition urging Congress to stand firm and not back down to Bush's demands.
  • May 10: Edward warns his supporters that Congress is considering giving Bush funding without withdrawal. He's asking people to donate so he can run a newspaper ad in the Washington Post opposing such a position.
  • May 14: Edwards urges his supporters to speak out against the war on Memorial Day and to call their Representative and urge them to stop funding the war.
  • May 24: An hour after the Senate caved to Bush, Edwards announces the defeat to his supporters, but urges them not to be discouraged and to continue the fight with specific suggestions.
    • Obama
  • May 7: Obama urges his supporters to organize a walk for Obama's Presidential campaign on June 9.
    • Clinton
  • May 17: Clinton asks her supporters to help her choose a theme song for her campaign.
  • Even worse is that Obama and Clinton did not announce which way they would vote on the "blank check" Iraq bill before they voted. What was the point of that? Edwards announced his position and tried to get others to join with him and help the cause. Clinton and Obama remained silent on Iraq until the vote was all over. Was that an effective strategy to convince other lawmakers to vote No? Of course not. The best way to move lawmakers is hearing from their constituents and if Obama and Clinton really wanted to end the war, they would have done exactly what Edwards, MoveOn, and others did: ask people to call their representatives and tell them to vote No before the vote.

    Remaining silent until after the Iraq vote was over is not the kind of leadership this country needs. That kind of leadership will not get us out of Iraq. That kind of leadership will not solve global warming.

    If candidates are not willing to speak out in advance on an issue as clear cut as whether to give Bush a blank check to continue the Iraq war for another year with no benchmarks and no withdrawal date, then why should I believe that they will be leaders on climate change and other important issues that are much less clear cut?

    By contrast, Edwards made his position clear from the start, he ran newspaper ads, he ran TV ads, and he even asked his supporters (multiple times) to urge their Representatives not to send Bush a blank check that would extend this war without bound. The more I learned, the more I found that Edwards is not only the best candidate on Iraq and global warming but also the best candidate all-around and arguably the one best positioned to win the White House.

    The Second Debate

    Edwards pointed out that the Iraq vote showed the difference between a leader and a legislator at the start of the second debate and the Washington Post called it the signature exchange of the event.

    Obama responded by deftly dodging the attack and changing the focus to point out that he opposed the war from the start. It was a clever comeback, but he did not directly respond to Edwards' point which was that on the issue of getting out of Iraq, Obama and Clinton did little more than cast their votes while Edwards was doing TV, newspapers and emails urging people to put pressure on Congress. Obama can't say that just because he didn't lead us into Iraq that he has no responsibility for helping to lead us out of Iraq.

    According to the Wikipedia, "Obama sponsored 152 bills and resolutions brought before the 109th Congress in 2005 and 2006, and cosponsored another 427." None of these were related to ending the war in Iraq. Additionally, "once Obama got to Washington [in 2005], he made only one Senate speech on Iraq," according to this Washington Post article.

    In January 30, 2007, Obama introduced the Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007 which calls for a goal of all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by March 31, 2008. But just six months earlier, on June 21, 2006, both he and Clinton voted against the Kerry-Feingold amendment which would have done essentially the same thing (Edwards isn't listed since his Senate term had already ended)!

    Clinton was as artful as Obama in avoiding answering Edwards directly. She changed the focus and said that the differences between the candidates are minor compared to the Republicans. She's right that all the Democrats want to end the war. And it's true that both she and Obama have virtually identical voting records in the Senate on the war. But Edwards was trying to point out that there were substantial leadership differences between the Democratic candidates on this issue.

    Another example of failing to speak out is that on May 14, two days before the vote on Senator Feingold's proposal to cut of war funding, both candidates were both mum on how they would vote. Then, one day before the vote, they both declared their support for a March 31, 2008 cutoff in funds.

    Edwards was absolutely right about the leadership differences. Next time, Edwards should ask, "why didn't you speak out before the May 24 vote on the Iraq Supplemental bill when you could have made a difference?" The correct answer is simply to be honest, "You are right. I should have, and I acknowledge and thank you for your leadership on this issue."

    Now that would be stunning! I don't know any perfect human beings, so mistakes happen. I'd rather elect someone who has the courage to admit they made a mistake and fix it than to elect another clone of George Bush.

    No One Will Follow a Leader Who Makes Things Worse

    Here's another example of a failure to lead. We will never reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals with a President who spends time championing fuels which emit twice the amount of greenhouse gasses than the fuels we currently use. Never. Nor will anyone follow us.

    So it came as a great shock to me when I learned that Obama is a champion of coal to liquids legislation that will make global warming worse as pointed out in this column by Fortune magazine writer Marc Gunther and in this New York Times editorial. called it "the greatest single threat to solving the climate crisis in a decade" in an urgent e-mail to their members on June 6, 2007 entitled "Turning every Prius into a Hummer."

    Obama has defended his stance by saying that coal is our most abundant resource and that he would require that the emissions be sequestered. But that is a poor defense because we have cleaner and less costly alternatives and despite what he claims, his legislation doesn't require that the emissions be sequestered and even if it did, it is still worse than the fuel it replaces. You simply cannot be a credible leader saying you want to reduce global warming while at the same time championing replacing our fuels with fuels that are worse.

    I found other examples of leadership failures and I summarized them on this web page comparing Clinton, Obama, Edwards on the top issues.

    The Kirsch Leadership Test

    None of the candidates can change the past. But they can learn from their mistakes and show the world that I was wrong about them. I'm going to give them that opportunity right now.

    In February 2007, the European Union ministers pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, but only if other heavy polluters such as the US join in.

    That is a stunning offer and an offer we should not refuse! This is the perfect opportunity for the candidates to rise to the challenge and prove to our nation and to the world that they possess the bold leadership skills that are required to take on global warming. All they have to do is say two words in response the EU challenge: "We accept." Follow those two words with a plan to get it done that passes independent peer-review and they've got my endorsement.

    Any takers?