Put candidates to the test

May 24, 2007|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

In 2008, Americans will pick a new president. How will we make our decision?

We'll look at the candidates' records, certainly - but they'll have no record showing how they'd act as president. We'll listen to their stump speeches, but those are invariably more like advertising pitches than genuine windows into their minds.

We'll watch them debate, but presidential debates mostly summon forth the candidates' usual talking points. And, of course, we'll watch countless TV commercials.

Wouldn't it be better if before hiring someone to guide our country through these dangerous times, we could get a meaningful look at how he or she would perform as president? This could be accomplished by introducing a new feature into our presidential campaigns: televised presidential simulations.

The fate of our civilization might depend on a president's ability to navigate strategically through the perils of the unknown (think of the Cuban missile crisis). We can clearly see the enormous price the nation is paying for the defects in the decision-making of our current president. Instead of putting our trust in on-the-job training, we could use simulations to test how well our presidential candidates would ask the necessary questions of the appropriate people, probe to get the relevant information, and make decisions. Think of such simulations - which would complement the presidential debates - as reality TV for presidential candidates.

There have been televised simulations before. In the 1980s, ABC television teamed up with a major foreign-policy think tank to conduct simulations featuring former government officials in the national security field.

In such simulations, the participants are delivered news of some emerging crisis in the world - a crisis with high stakes, requiring careful analysis and action: for example, the seizure of an American ship, or word of a possible incipient attack on a U.S. ally. The group then seeks to learn as much as possible about the situation so it can decide how to respond. During the simulation, the group continues to receive news about the crisis, and the way the crisis unfolds is influenced by the group's responses.

It is possible to conduct a good and realistic simulation, and experience suggests the participants would have no difficulty treating the simulated events with the utmost seriousness.

In the context of a presidential campaign, each candidate in the general election who meets some agreed-upon threshold of support in the polls would be the head of a group of advisers selected by him or her to form an acting "National Security Council." Each candidate would be free to run the group as he or she wished. The simulations would be run simultaneously for all candidates and might last for, say, two days. The deliberations of each group could be continuously televised on a specific station, such as C-SPAN. Other news media could provide what they regarded as the important highlights.

In the 2008 election, there will be no incumbent in the race - no candidate who has wielded the enormous power of the Oval Office. That makes it an ideal time to inaugurate this idea.

A crucial challenge here is the design of the simulations. They should be created by people with deep knowledge of the realms to be simulated: international relations, terrorism, diplomacy, etc. In addition, steps should be taken to ensure that the design of the simulations has integrity and does not stack the deck in favor of one side. Just as the questions asked in presidential debates are chosen by presumably neutral parties, the simulations should be constructed by people without a partisan agenda.

For voters, such simulations would be immensely helpful. Now, citizens rarely see the candidates in unscripted moments. Simulations would give us a chance to see how the candidates behave when - as in the real world - events are not under their complete control.

Because of their duration, such simulations promise to reveal still more about the candidates. Experience has shown that if the cameras run long enough, people gradually stop acting as if they are on stage and start being "themselves."

The choice of our commander in chief is too important to buy a pig in a poke. Holding simulations would give us a better idea of just what these candidates really bring to the job.

Some may object that such a proposal is not politically feasible, because the candidates wouldn't want to risk revealing so much. But who's in charge here - the American people or those they hire to run their government?

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of of "Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide." His Web site is www.NoneSoBlind.org.

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