The Red Phone

It's jolting and ominous. Indeed, the dueling Clinton-Obama "red phone" ads are a throw-back to previous eras, a time of the cold war, a bear in the woods, daisies and detonation. The red phone is an icon of fear, often used when other arguments fail. But that's just it: the red phone is about the past. I want to look to the future, one rooted in our present-day reality. This campaign has given us Senator Obama, who has captured many people's imagination; Senator Clinton, who has demonstrated just how tough she is; and Senator McCain, an American hero. But my concern here is not about media buys, "get out the vote" operations, or how to excite people and motivate them to vote. I have no problem with tough-minded ads.

My concern is that I want candidates who call us to look to the future by genuinely reflecting and understanding the present. We're squarely barreling into the 21st Century, whether we like it or not and things have changed dramatically from the 1990s, or even from 2004. For instance:

•    In just the past few years the auto industry has undergone a total makeover, well beyond changes in the 1980s and 90s. With tens of thousands of workers recently laid off or bought out, the auto industry of the future is not the one of our childhood.•    The Internet has altered how we get information and news and with whom we connect, changing what and who we know, and how communities function.•    While younger Americans are re-entering politics, the huge baby boomer generation is retiring and seeking meaningful things to do; yet no one is clearly proposing how to tap into this energy, other than to say, "Vote for me!"

•    National security issues have fundamentally changed in the last eight years, with terrorism, the further emergence of China, an increasingly testy Russia, just to mention top-of-the-head issues.

With fundamental shifts taking place in this country and around the world, old discussions about the same old issues won’t work. Nor will simply updating various policy proposals, arguing endlessly about who voted for NAFTA and what they think today, or talking about speeches vs. solutions.

I remember sitting in a restaurant in New Hampshire in 1995 with a group of citizens I was interviewing for a project with the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. The project was built around listening to Americans talk about their concerns and hopes. People talked movingly and with deep frustration about how their factory jobs had gone overseas.  They were clear that something was changing in America, but weren’t exactly sure what, and they were holding on for dear life to the past.  Of course, that's not uncommon, we all do that.

But there's little doubt today that the world has gone through a major transformation and that we are not returning to the 1980s, or even the 1990s. What's more, no president alone can shape the future, or craft a new, complete and cogent narrative for the nation. Such changes emerge only over time. And yet, a candidate for the presidency and future president can help us "turn" toward the future, so that we can begin to see it and address it. You see, the fundamental choice before us is not simply a matter of debating one policy or another, but a choice about our orientation concerning the next leg of our common journey.

When I was 23 years old, several presidents ago, I was a young aide to senior staff for the Mondale for President Campaign. That campaign also produced a red phone television ad, one used against Senator Gary Hart (D-CO). Just a few short years later, in 1987, I made the decision to start what has become The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, in part because I felt that politics had become more about striking fear into people's hearts, than tapping into their aspirations and solving problems.

In many respects, politics is on the upswing this year. The positive changes have been a long-time in the making, a manifestation, I believe, of Americans' long-held aspirations for a better politics and public life. Which leads me back to the red phone: this year's race, I believe, is the first in recent times to be squarely about the new century, about an era already upon us, one which represents a fundamentally different trajectory for our nation. If, as I believe, our trajectory is fundamentally different from eras past, then I want a campaign which talks about that different path and how we can take it.