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Paul Schmitz
Public Service Leader

Paul Schmitz

Paul Schmitz is CEO of Public Allies, which, through AmeriCorps and other programs, identifies and prepares young community and non-profit leaders.

Repellent Politics

Senator Kennedy's passing has been reported as also the end of an era, an era of larger-than-life political leaders who could both be passionately partisan and practically bi-partisan to accomplish big changes for the country. Where are the next generation of giants? I would argue that many are working to solve public problems outside the political process.

The nonprofit sector is filled with leaders who are passionate about solving problems, have deep understandings of complex issues, know how to raise funds and manage constituencies, and focus on effective results. One would think that these leaders would be exactly the kind who would thrive in public life, yet I am surprised by how few of my colleagues have chosen this path.

The anecdotal evidence gleaned from friends and colleagues over the years is not that fundraising, campaigning, or media scrutiny are the problem, but that the political process itself is the problem.

First, the dynamics of campaigning can be very difficult for such a leader. Long hours and fundraising are not the issue - these leaders are used to it. The big challenge has to do with the ability to speak truthfully about issues and what it takes to solve them. It appears that a candidate must abandon some measure of honesty or they will be abandoned by some number of their chosen party's interest groups. This is very difficult for leaders who are results-based.

Second, the partisan rancor of campaigning and governing leads to a dumbing down of debates that strips them of the nuance, complexity, and honesty needed to form effective solutions. If one adds to this the inevitable compromises needed to appease interest groups and the bureaucratic regulations that often hamper innovation and effectiveness, the process can appear disheartening for those who are solution-focused.

I believe many of the most passionate and entrepreneurial nonprofit leaders believe that they can have a greater impact by building innovative, effective, and uncompromising solutions outside of government and then trying to influence change. They are more interested in building the best solution at smaller scale than working on a mediocre solution at larger scale.

This past election seemed to usher in hope that perhaps a different kind of approach could win in public life. But then we saw national service become "re-education camps," health care become "death panels," and a president forced to compromise with various interests and with frightened public will to accomplish his goals. The jury is still out on hope and change.

My sincerest hope is that the verdict in this case will not further repel my sector's best leaders from considering public office. In fact, I believe they may be the leaders who can best recapture and elevate the debates in public life. They bring a different set of skills and leadership capabilities - both legislative and executive - than professional politicians bring. And their vision about solving social problems can appeal to liberals as their focus on effectiveness may encourage conservatives. Perhaps there is a formula for uncompromising truth and victory.

The reality is that one innovative educational, health, or economic development solution can never reach true scale without legislative support. Senator Kennedy's example that courage and compromise can be blended to produce a powerful legacy of impact on peoples' lives should inspire nonprofit leaders to think bigger. Those who've mastered the outside game have to learn to play inside, too, if their solutions are going to hold.

An era is not made by one giant, but by giants who debate and collaborate to create legislative legacies. Perhaps a new era of giants could emerge if talented social entrepreneurs and activists turned their leadership abilities, skills, and focus on results to the legislative arena. That could produce an era of hope and change I could believe in.

By Paul Schmitz

 |  September 2, 2009; 6:15 AM ET
Category:  Politics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I can imagine what Capitalism would do with the lives and health of our citizens,not to mention peoples savings if government regulations and oversight were omitted can't you, if not your the blind leading the blind. Unfettered Capitalism screams for government help whenever it deems it as necessary for its survival, yet says, if only government would get off my back. Capitalism the poor feeding the rich. Capitalism needs the reins of regulation, we have to put the God of Love into Capitalism, not the god of money.

Posted by: tony55398 | September 6, 2009 11:52 AM
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They have forgotten their parents advice, "Newt and Nancy, you'll have to share or we'll take your toys from you"!
Love that comment, says it all. The sad point of that statement. The majority of dem's probably hate nancy as much as the majority of repubs hate Newt and Rush.

Posted by: LiberalBasher | September 4, 2009 4:16 PM
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The majority of politics consists of deliberately causing confusion amongst the populace in order to score points for one's political team. This "win one for the Democratic/Republican team at any cost" philosophy is what hinders progress in this country, and why honest, intelligent people prefer to transform society outside the political arena.

Posted by: kingpigeon | September 4, 2009 10:25 AM
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This article neglects one of the primary reasons good people don't go into politics: you have to sell your soul.

Nobody who wins an election is a "good" or moral person for the simple reason that such an individual would not do what is necessary to win and stay in office.

Attacking opponents' character and families, begging for money from slimy lobbyists, lying with a straight face to the press and constituents, abandoning long-time friends and supporters when they become liabilities; truly good and moral people would be incapable of such actions. Look no further for why so many people don't go into politics.

Posted by: bpai_99 | September 3, 2009 6:09 PM
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There is no "Obamacare," at least not yet - and the unruly people are the ones yelling against what they call "Obamacare," repeating the same questions and very rarely listening to the answers (one guy angrily asked the rep a question - one asked repeatedly already - and while the rep was replying (again), this guy got on the phone! Smiling and laughing at/with whomever he was talking with. He didn't want a real answer; he just wanted to "air." Yeesh.

That aside, I'm wondering why the Washington Post interviews people like Greg Craig; he looks and sounds like someone who over the years has seen a lot of Jack Daniels, and talking as if Senator Kennedy "invented the earmark" only shows how ignorant he is of our political system and how it has worked from the very beginning. I live in a county that, if it needs a major repair, for example, looks for the money from its citizens; if there isn't enough, it looks to the state; if there isn't enough there, it looks to the federal government; if it gets its representatives interested along the way and the money comes back to the county to spend on this repair, guess what? An earmark!!!

Posted by: jujones1 | September 3, 2009 5:05 PM
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Thanks for this perceptive and encouraging column! Both media and politicians need to face the sad results of their misbehavior and reform themselves. And all organizations helping kids understand the complexities and relationships that undergird the world today need support and encouragement. Kids are plenty smart. More than learning what to think, they need to learn how to analyze and investigate, how to share, and how to find alternatives to violence.

Posted by: jeangerard1 | September 3, 2009 2:53 PM
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Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel need to stop sending unruly mobs to demonstrate for Obamacare. A Moveon.org activist bit off the finger of a 65-year-old counter-protester in California. When will the White House stop siccing their dogs on the opposition?

Obama has used every trick in the book to get elected. Sending mobs is sickening and is no way to govern this nation. It is time to move on and act more civilized.

Posted by: alance | September 3, 2009 2:35 PM
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We love President Obama!

We're 100% behind the current discussions to reform the criminal insurance industry.

But when talk show entertainers and drug addicted AM radio bloviators are actually commented upon by "news" and "political leaders" as if their self-serving, or paid-for comments had any veracity of any sort...

WHY on earth would we want to join that pack of hypocrits, liars, and self-promoters that the media use to sell advertising??

I'm not getting into the sewer with them.

Posted by: onestring | September 3, 2009 1:41 PM
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Yep.....and it was all those starry eyed youngsters who got the man they wanted, into the Oval Office. A lot of them need to take a hard look in the mirror if they want a really close up peek at those who facilitate scummy politics.

Too bad they haven't learned that the Age of Aquarius is long, long gone.

Posted by: SUBLIMEWOODY | September 3, 2009 12:31 PM
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You used the word "uncompromising" a lot in this article. The fact is, in a democracy compromise is the rule. You can't have everything you want right now -at least if you don't have the votes for a landslide. Multiple voices must be heard, multiple positions considered, deals cut, and a solution worked out that a majority can agree on.

To a "results-based" person, this may seem wishy-washy. But the fact is, nothing is more dangerous to a democracy than a powerful person who believes he or she is right - that his solution is the right solution and nothing but the pure solution will do. That person will do anything, trample on any rights, bend the Constitution in any way necessary to get what he or she wants. This is not how democracy works.

I agree with the previous commenter who noted a desire on the part of both parties to "cleanse" their opponents and have everything their way. You know how it sounds: "If only we didn't have this clumsy, stupid, illogical democratic process to go through we could really get things done! We could change the world if it weren't for those stupid Republicans!"

Watch it, people. We're flirting with fascism here.

Posted by: telesonic | September 3, 2009 12:03 PM
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Politics isn't the culprit keeping young and old alike from entering the field, it's the politicians and media. Both of which have created an intemperate environment between political parties.

In todays environment,
Both parties and left and right media outlets would be happy to politically "cleanse" the other party and their followers. They have forgotten their parents advice, "Newt and Nancy, you'll have to share or we'll take your toys from you"!

Posted by: victorlove1 | September 3, 2009 8:13 AM
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what young person wants to be associated with reid, pelosi, franks, waxman, schumer and all the rest...

Posted by: DwightCollins | September 3, 2009 6:53 AM
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