Henningsen: Leadership Litmus Test

Jun 22, 2017

I’ve often wondered about the standards we expect political candidates to meet. Not the formal requirements of age, citizenship, or length of residence; but the intangibles – a kind of “litmus test” of qualities that candidates must pass before we entrust them with public office.

A cynic once claimed the only question that matters to voters is “What have you done for me lately?” But I suspect that while we certainly approach voting with healthy self-interest, most of us have higher standards. John Kennedy said the only meaningful measure of leadership would be history’s verdict on four characteristics: courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication. These seem broad enough that most of us might accept them as a rough gauge with which to level judgment.

If so, many would give a failing grade to those proposing health care legislation that seems almost Dickensian in nature, extending generous aid to those who need it least while stiffing those in greatest difficulty: the poor, seniors, people with pre-existing conditions, those with special needs, hospitals, and state governments which will now be expected to bear significantly greater Medicaid costs.

Most shocking is the implicit supposition that those in need are somehow responsible for their own predicament and therefore without virtue and undeserving of our compassion. This simply defies logic. We all have pre-existing conditions – every single one of us. It’s just that some of them haven’t yet declared themselves. And the sad fact is that when we eventually, inevitably, must come to the aid of those whose needs we’ve ignored, the cost will be infinitely greater in time, money, and human spirit.

The only good thing I can see about the current health care policy debate is that it’s accelerated a developing trend of previously uninvolved citizens seeking public office, particularly evident in a wave of newcomers considering a run for Congress.

Whether these folks will meet JFK’s standard of courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication remains to be seen. What we can say is that most of them seem impelled to take action by moral outrage at the “What have you done for me lately?” approach to politics. They’re asking “What will this do to us later?” – and that’s a better litmus test for leadership.