Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thinking about questions that would help understand how candidates would make decisions

In a democracy I suggest that voters should hare a right to know how candidates for office would make decisions if elected. The rights of the candidates for privacy should be balanced against the rights of the voters to adequate access to information to make good decisions.

Of course, there are many sources of information on the ways candidates would make decisions, from their speeches on the campaign trail, to the platforms of their parties, to their performance in debates. Perhaps even more informative is the history of the candidate's decisions in previous offices and roles in life. Still, we may be entitled to still more information.

It might be useful if there were standard questions for candidates on some specific aspects of the ways that they would make decisions in office. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have believed in a specific interpretation of the separation of powers  -- that the President as Commander in Chief had the power to act first, but that the judiciary and legislative branches had the power to respond to those acts under the Constitution. George W Bush made many formal signing statements when signing legislation into law, apparently believing that those statements affected the implementation of the legislation; his administration accepted interpretations by political appointees in the Justice Department of international treaties on the treatment of prisoners that have been widely criticized. So, candidates might be asked how they would take into account the actions of other branches and departments of government in their White House decision making.

Graham Allison's book, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis showed the way in which decisions were made in the Kennedy administration that could have led to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. Those decisions were made in consultation with a relatively small number of key advisers, but in a process in which contrarian opinion was sought; in earlier decisions on the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy apparently gave greater credence to opinions filtering up through the bureaucratic systems of the CIA and Department of Defense, with less desirable results. Perhaps candidates should regularly be asked how they would avoid the "bubble effect" of the oval office in order to obtain a broad spectrum of advice on important decisions while keeping the decision process agile and capable of producing timely decisions, and how they would balance the advice of kitchen cabinet with that of their political appointees and those of the non-political bureaucracy of the executive branch of government.

History suggests that voters are not adequately informed as to health conditions that may influence a candidate's decision making were he/she to be elected. Woodrow Wilson had three strokes before his election which were not disclosed to the public followed by a major stroke late in his second term which incapacitated him; apparently his wife made major policy decisions for the nation while he was incapacitated. Thomas Eagleton, vice presidential candidate to George McGovern, did not disclose a history of mental health problems to McGovern when being considered for the ticket, and left the ticket after that history was revealed and psychiatrists indicated that condition might affect his decisions in office if elected. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was far more ill, especially during his fourth term, than the public was allowed to know; one must wonder whether his illness affected his decisions at critical points during those years. Grover Cleveland had a large tumor removed from his jaw and hard palate during his presidency and neither the operation nor the recuperation was disclosed to the public. John Kennedy had medical problems not disclosed to the public. Certainly candidates have a right to privacy, but it seems to me that voter choices would be better made were conditions known that might affect decision making. Might there not be a means of requiring disclosure of some medical conditions for candidates, at least for key elected posts?

Salon has an article questioning the candidacy of  Michele Bachman because she has publicly described herself as believing in a "submission theology" both in terms of making decisions based on her belief that a specific choice was the revealed will of God or on the basis that a wife should submit to her husband (her husband apparently directed her decision to become a tax lawyer). Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer who is thought to have influenced decisions of President Reagan. Candidates in the past have had to address whether their decisions would be influenced by religious leaders, including Obama with respect to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Kennedy, as a Catholic, with respect to the Pope; while I believe these concerns were unjustified and the result of prejudice, there is clearly a history of cults in the United States in which members of the cults would submit their decisions to the cult leaders for approval. Clearly we don't want a religious test for candidates and clearly many if not all presidents consult their (religious) consciences when making important decisions, but it seems to me that it voters have a right to be concerned if someone other than their elected official were to be making policy decisions for the nation. It also seems to me that it would be better if all candidates for the presidency were asked a standard question as to whether they would submit their decision making to any religious (or other) outside authority, and if so the nature of that authority. Perhaps the League of Women Voters of some other neutral body could introduce such a practice.

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