The rumor mill is running rampant. The insider tongue-wagging is in high gear. And the hyper-analysis from pundits and politicos is pedal-to-the-metal in anticipation of the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Utah. With that election as a backdrop, it is a good time to remember what elections should be about. Elections are never supposed to be about what was, or even what is. Every election, at every level, should be about the future — about what is next.
Serving as chief of staff in a U.S. Senate office provided me many opportunities for interesting discussions with people who were considering running for public office. As the gatekeeper, I developed a checklist for rapidly assessing candidates. There are a few critical questions that supersede all the others when considering a potential political candidate: (1) What is the candidate’s vision, agenda or big idea? (2) What is it in the candidate’s agenda that would make the entire effort and sacrifice worth it, even if they ran and lost? (3) How would the candidate continue to contribute and make a difference if they did lose the election?
Candidates should take note that the American people are tired of politicians whose only vision is a vision of themselves in high office. Citizens are longing for authentic leaders who have a vision for their community, state and nation. I have long said that everyone wants to be an author — no one wants to be a writer. Everyone wants to be a senator — no one wants to be a candidate.
As it relates to the Utah Senate race, we have heard nothing of vision. We have heard a lot about whose seat it is, who might run, who might not run, and a mind-numbing game of “I will run if so-and-so doesn’t,” or “I won’t run if so-and-so does,” and the highly confusing “I will run if so-and-so does not, but only if so-and-so also does not.” A decision to run for office should have little to do with whether someone else runs or doesn’t run — it should have everything to do with a candidate’s vision for the state and the country. You either have a vision and an agenda that would make it worth it to run, even if you ran and lost — or you don’t.
We have also been conditioned as voters to look backward. While experience, prior accomplishments, and previous service are important measures for assessing a candidate, we should remember that real leaders focus on their vision for what is next. Gov. Mike Leavitt was a wonderful example on this front. During his re-election campaigns he easily could have focused on what he had accomplished for the state of Utah and the accolades the state was receiving. He didn’t. Instead he spent the campaign talking about what was next; the challenges ahead; the opportunities the state had to prepare for — and he called on citizens to join him in building that future. Likewise, Ronald Reagan could have spent 1984 talking about the good things that had happened during his first four years in office. He didn’t. He spent the vast majority of his time talking about it being morning in America and that we had more to do as citizens to make our country that shining city on a hill. A vision of the future, an American agenda, and big ideas for all.
In a pre-Election Day interview I was once posed the question, “What is the final thing a citizen should ask themselves about a candidate before casting a vote for them?” I replied that for me the question would be, “How would the candidate continue to contribute and make a difference if they lost the election?” If you can’t rapidly come up with the answer — don’t vote for that candidate. Because if the only way you think that candidate will contribute is in the position of power they are running for — you will soon see that, if elected, they will spend all of their time preserving and holding on to their position of power as long as they can. The preoccupation and obsession with holding on to political power is one of the major problems we have among elected officials today. On the other hand, if you can rapidly identify how the candidate would serve and make a difference outside of office, that is someone who will be able to show real courage, cast tough votes, lead uncomfortable conversations, and stand for the principles they profess to believe — even if it means standing alone.
The prognosticating parlor game of who will or won’t run for the U.S. Senate from Utah in 2018 will continue. As citizens we should start looking for who has the best forward-looking vision for the state, who will run with that vision as their driving force, and who has a compelling call for what is next. Because for Utah and America, next begins now.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free-market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.