Empathy and a Plan

Perhaps my favorite quote from a Kennedy is Bobby’s.

Perhaps my favorite quote from a Kennedy is Bobby’s. “Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why'? I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not'?" he once said, quoting the playwright George Bernard Shaw. The idea is still relevant in today’s political climate. That climate is changing. Voters are becoming more discerning and critical after years of apathy. I’ll have no empirical data to back this up until 2010, but those who ignore the tea party movement do so at their own peril. Citizens are questioning their past choices and are looking for leaders with a vision. Voters are angry, and it is easy for candidates to fall into the trap of negativism—to ride the wave of anger, hoping it will carry them into office. But successful candidates need to address the root causes of the anger. People are questioning the system but don’t know how to escape. Enter the leader with a road map. It's not enough to stand in front of the army and say, “I’m angry, too, and I’m willing to step out front and take the arrows.” The successful politician in the new age must offer an alternative to the system and a plan for the future. Everyone is dour and candidates must empathize—but they must have enough hope to carry the crowd forward into history. There is a fine art to saying, “Things are bleak right now but the future holds promise.” Over the ages, those with that ability have risen to the Oval Office. But this new generation will demand that ability of all leaders, not just the president. School board members will have to tighten the community belt while offering a vision of the future that includes vibrant and efficient centers of excellence. Voters have become savvier to messages without substance in the wake of big-dollar plans that yield no relief in their own homes. They understand that business as usual has chugged along while business itself has come to a grinding halt. It used to be possible to ignite the base with a message like “entitlements are bringing us to our knees as an economic superpower.” Not in the post-stimulus age. Now the message must be: “Entitlements must be looked at with an eye towards return on investment. We need to do X, Y and Z with an eye towards reform”. The successful message will include both empathy and a plan. There is a delicate balance between emotion and wonkishness, understanding and hope, “why?” and “why not?” Reagan and Roosevelt rose to the highest office by striking that balance. Candidates for every office need to learn the lesson.Jonathan Scott is president of the Liftline Group, a New England-based consulting and public relations firm. He is also the chairman of Ocean State Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at liftline.group@gmail.com.

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