Reasons so many politicians don’t tell the truth

More than a dozen Republicans and a handful of Democrats have announced they are running for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. The campaign will flood the airwaves with grand promises that ought to be taken with a large dose of salt. Americans should have learned by now that telling the truth is a liability in politics. Perhaps one reason truth is a liability is that, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, Americans cannot bear too much reality.

The candidates will talk endlessly about a long list of profound problems facing the country. They will remind everyone that until quite recently, the U.S. was widely regarded as an irresistible juggernaut, dominating the global landscape and that it must continue to lead in a world it has helped to make more dangerous. They will simplify the complex demands of pressing, interconnected problems as if each can be solved simultaneously despite constrained resources and the need to engage in trade-offs.

But turning their promises into reality will require something that has been sorely missing in recent years: a strategy.

Leadership is required to make hard choices in a systemic, coordinated, considered manner. Everyone’s wants and needs can never be satisfied, regardless of the rosy campaign rhetoric. Some things are more important than others, even though politicians are reluctant to be explicit. An overarching strategy can identify and prioritize what is important.

The American people will decide who among these candidates has the shortest learning curve and best grasps the challenges facing the country as it comes to terms with new economic, social, and geo­ political realities such as the erosion in U.S. economic dominance and increasing global economic parity. Sure, some fraying at the edges of America’s economic hegemony was to be expected since it spent much treasure in planting the seeds of market capitalism as part of the fight against communism. Is it any wonder that others are catching up?

America’s domestic and foreign issues are tightly connected. For example, a weak economy leaves America in an appreciably weaker position to pursue foreign policy goals and keep its citizens secure. The voters must answer a fundamental question: who is capable of crafting the kind of overarching strategy that has been missing as America have stumbled from one crisis to the next?

Anyone running an enterprise knows that strategy matters. At its core, strategy is about creating and exploiting competitive advantage and adapting to the external environment; the ability to do something the competition cannot do based on your unique set of resources and strengths. How will these candidates make good on their promises and use America’s strengths to capitalize on external opportunities, while mitigating the threats and minimizing weaknesses in an increasingly competitive, dangerous, complicated and fluid global environment?

The good news is that America has plenty of strengths to leverage. Consider it is the world’s largest exporter of food; it has a per capita GDP over five times that of China; it has 17 of the world’s top 20 research universities; it has robust capital markets; and an entrepreneurial culture that excels in the kind of technological innovation that has made it possible to produce enough energy to be on its way to self­ sufficiency. Also, America has more favorable demographics than any of its most important economic competitors. And it is the economy that keeps American strong and powerful.

A grand strategy doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to avoid being so wrong that it can’t be put right. Recent history teaches that it makes more sense to adapt strategy along the way than to try and control the dynamic global environment, only to stumble from crisis to crisis, stretching and wasting precious resources along the way.

Given the rough and tumble of global competition, it might also be wise to remember Mike Tyson’s observation: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Originally Published: July 18, 2015