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THE MORTGAGE CRISIS: John Edwards is the Man to Lead Us Out

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.

We've had plenty of transactional presidents in America, as indeed a stable democracy should--transformational leaders only come around at a time of great change. Even Franklin Roosevelt was probably better at transaction than transformation. In 1936 he announced the guiding admonition (to which "One America" is kin) that "necessitous men are not free men." But, though he rode to unprecedented electoral triumph that year, he failed to push the New Deal much further. There is more to transformation than inspiring ideals; there is also teaching and timing. In 1937, Roosevelt failed at both. Rather than demonstrate an urgent need for his plan to pack the Supreme Court with friendly justices, he pressed without accruing adequate support, and his presidency foundered on the misguided effort.

Ronald Heifetz of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government points out that a democratic leader can't just take his country where he pleases; he has to get constituencies to do "adaptive work"--to recognize a gap between core principles and current practices and move toward a solution. Heifetz's best example is Lyndon Johnson. Privately telling NAACP head Roy Wilkins "I'm no magician," Johnson encouraged civil rights organizations to put pressure on Republican congressmen so the president would have more leverage with Democrats. Johnson masterfully and coldly played to his advantage the confrontation in Selma, Alabama between unarmed marchers and the state police ordered by George Wallace to stop them. As television broadcast pictures of the bloody clash, Johnson "held steady," allowing the pressure to build, forcing Wallace to seek his help and Congress to grant Johnson's request to speak on behalf of a voting rights bill.

As Heifetz's analysis makes clear, Johnson knew he couldn't effect change on his own -- he could only urge Americans to make it possible for him to act. That's the real role of a democratic leader--not selling a product to the public, but letting the public see plainly what it really wants. Edwards has organized his whole campaign around this principle. Betting that the current crisis--not just the credit debacle, but the mess in which the country finds itself at home and abroad, the unending legacy of Katrina and Iraq--amounts to a true opportunity for transformational leadership, he's trying to shift the debate away from procedure and toward ultimate goals. And it's a good bet to take. As in the civil rights era, we've reached a point where it will take more than a technical fix to right the system. Like Johnson, though, he's still going to need calculation, patience, and the cooperation of events if he wants Americans to agree.

By Eric Rauchway