John Edwards' Sales Pitch

This column was written by Eric Rauchway.

A crisis like the current credit crunch presents a political leader with a range of options. One can say that the banks, backstopped by the Federal Reserve, will sort things out--which with minor modifications remains the president's position. One can go further and note that the imbroglio in which markets now have us immersed results from a lack of regulation, and that reforms will prevent the problem from recurring--which was the position Barack Obama took in a Financial Times op-ed last week. Or a leader can go further still and urge us to ask whether the system that got us here truly reflects our values. Of all the Democratic presidential candidates, John Edwards is the one taking this approach, examining the gap between our core values and our actual practices.

According to a recent Time profile of Edwards, his advisor Joe Trippi tells reporters Edwards is running a "transformational" rather than a "transactional" campaign. In using this language, which comes straight from James MacGregor Burns's 1978 classic Leadership, Trippi's doing the same kind of thing Karl Rove used to do when he told reporters how much he studied William McKinley--but to judge by the Time profile, Trippi's not being obvious enough about sending the reporters to the library; the reporter completely missed the point. (Psst, Joe: Karl understood you have to give out authors, titles, and synopses; then writers can summarize your erudition without having to admit they themselves didn't do the summer reading.)

Burns argued that transactional leaders were really followers, as in the Francophobe joke about the blowhard who sees the mob go by from his stool at a café and leaps up, declaiming "There goes the mob! I must follow, for I am their leader!" Transactional leaders feel out the opinions of their constituencies and offer them compensation for their needs. The compensation comes often merely as the slight comfort of sympathetic recognition--think of how the president uses the language specific to evangelical Christians, thus letting them know he's one of them, even if he's not actively furthering their agenda. As Burns pointed out, transactional leadership is sometimes suitable to maintaining a status quo, but it's almost always short-sighted. Burns chose the word "transaction" carefully--he thought of this leadership as a kind of market exchange, no more permanently binding than any transaction between buyer and seller, and premised on preserving a particular market niche. A transactional leader has to keep offering new products--which is to say, new recognitions or gratifications--tailored to that niche, lest he lose his followers.

By contrast, Burns's transformational leader recognizes "that, whatever the separate interests persons might hold, they are presently or potentially united in the pursuit of 'higher' goals." This is the point of Edwards's "One America" trope. By drawing a distinction between "resigning ourselves to Two Americas or fighting for the One America we all believe in," he's drawing as explicit a distinction between transactional leadership and transformational leadership as a candidate can, saying we can accept what we have and fix it at the margins, or try for what we really want.

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