Amid the staggering volume of analysis of 200 minutes of debating among 17 assorted Republicans yesterday, it helps to keep a few fundamentals in mind. One, these candidates are competing for the biggest leadership job in the world. Two, a leader is, at its most basic level, someone who has followers. So who among those 17 seemed most like someone you’d follow?
I won’t keep you in suspense about my call: By the followership test, the winners were John Kasich and Jeb Bush.
Why not the others? Among those in the prime time debate, Donald Trump stayed with the trademark bombastic blowhard braggadocio that has served him well over the past 40 years, and the crowd loved it, even when they were booing him. It’s good TV. But you wouldn’t follow him because you’d have no idea where you were going. Rand Paul was hot-headed, and in any case I don’t think he expects to be the nominee; his mission for now is getting libertarianism into the mainstream. Chris Christie was doing well until he got into a skirmish with Paul, and that troubling nastiness took over; suddenly he seemed petty.
Marco Rubio is getting there, but he actually merits the cliché about a deer caught in the headlights; give him another eight years. Ben Carson emphasized his strong personal attributes but still wasn’t ready to talk policy, and you don’t want to follow someone on faith that he’ll figure it out eventually. Mike Huckabee was impressively polished but played so heavily to Iowa’s evangelical caucus-goers that he seemed uninterested in a broader followership. Scott Walker and Ted Cruz did okay but came across as flat, just faces in the crowd.
Kasich and Bush weren’t perfect onstage. Bush seemed strangely nervous at first, not something you want in a leader. But they both found their footing and came across as judicious leaders who had thought through their policy positions and could articulate them in a broadly appealing way. As governors, they’ve both made hard decisions in executive positions. And though neither will likely mention this in the campaign, both have worked in business: Bush in banking, real estate, health care, and other ventures; Kasich on Wall Street (at Lehman Brothers when it was doing well). Some of us actually consider that a plus.
The election is a long way off, and much will change. Through it all, we can keep ourselves grounded by asking: Would I want to follow that person?
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