America's leaders aren't just partisan and indecisive, they're wusses. So says Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor, in his book A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great. Rendell, also a football analyst, says the Philadelphia Eagles could go all the way to the Super Bowl this season, but he is far less optimistic about the future of America if elected leaders continue to play it safe. Rendell recently spoke with U.S. News about the tendency of the nation's elected officials to show more interest in their job security than in serving their constituencies, and what he thinks must be done to turn the country around. Excerpts:
Who are the wusses?
The wusses are mostly the people in control of America. Obviously, that starts with the elected officials, but it's also lawyers, insurance adjusters. But it's mostly our elected officials, and our elected officials are having the most significantly damaging effect by their failure to act with courage, by their failure to assume risk.
Why are they wusses?
They are wusses because, first, they won't tell their constituents the truth. They don't believe that their constituents can handle the truth, and I disagree with that strongly. Secondly, they won't do things that they know are the right thing or the only thing we can do to get out of the trouble we are in because they are afraid of losing their jobs. I have a chapter in the book called "Stand and Defend: There Are Some Things Worth Losing For," and if you don't believe that, if you don't believe there's something important enough that you want to do in elected office that you're willing to risk that you might not get re-elected, then you shouldn't run in the first place.
Would term limits solve the problem?
Term limits would help, but so far no one has been able to devise a workable term-limit system. But if you could, it would help because it would take away the instinct of self-preservation, it would take away people thinking, "I've got a 30- or 40-year career and want to build up my pension."
What has suffered because of this?
Well, everything. Take the American infrastructure. Everyone knows our infrastructure is crumbling—our roads, our bridges, our highways, our dams, our levies, our electrical grid, our water systems—and yet no one is willing to invest money because too many of our people have signed a no-tax, no-revenue pledge. Well, it makes no sense. In fact, even in the 2010 election, the most conservative election in my lifetime, people approved 64 percent of transportation infrastructure ballot initiatives, and each one of them called for either new taxes, new tolling, or new borrowing because people understand that, and they understand it's necessary.
How can this be resolved?
It would help if we could get whoever wins the election, if there's strong presidential leadership when he gathers everyone together, to say, "We're going to take care of the deficit, we're going to do an energy bill that covers everything and that will create American energy independence. We're going to have a long-term infrastructure bill, and we're going to do this together. Everyone's going to take a little bit of a hit, all of our constituents are going to have a little bit of pain, but we are going to tell them the truth: that this is the only way we are going to straighten out this country."
Is this behavior why approval ratings are so low?
Sure, people are looking for elected officials to lead, not necessarily just to agree with them. Getting things done in this political climate takes willingness to assume risk, and that's what has been absent.
What's the top quality leaders need to be effective?
Leaders have to have courage. This country was built by risk-takers, it was built by a nation of shopkeepers and farmers who thought they could beat the best army and navy in the world, the British Empire. And we did. We took enormous risks, and everywhere we have gone in our country's history we have advanced by taking risks.
Has a lack of courage changed our relationship with other countries?