Breaking The Bad News

We’ve been seeing a lot of our nation’s governors lately.  In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has been on TV so much with afternoon announcements about COVID-19 developments that some people are timing their first cocktail with the news conferences and enjoying “Wine with DeWine.”  We’re getting a living reminder of lessons learned during our junior high school civics classes and the fact that we live in a country where the states have significant powers and duties.  When a once-in-a-lifetime crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, governors are put front and center in dealing with all of the issues.

img_2632Unfortunately for the nation’s governors, a lot of what they’re doing right now is breaking bad news.  They’re announcing shutdowns and “shelter in place” edicts and other orders and showing small-print graphs and charts that make people upset and anxious.  Nobody except introverts and hermits wants to be cooped up in their houses indefinitely.  But the time durations of these shutdown orders varies widely, from state to state.  In Ohio, I think the initial “stay at home” order covered the period until April 6.  In Virginia, by contrast, the governor just announced a shutdown until June 10 — more than two months longer than the initial Ohio order.

The current situation squarely raises the issue of the best way to break bad news.  Put yourself in the shoes of the governor of your choice.  If you were issuing a shutdown order, would you give your citizens the worst-case scenario — which seems to be the technique used by the Virginia governor — so that they can start to get adjusted to the prospect of being at home for two months?  It’s a kind of “rip the band-aid off” approach, isn’t it?  And, if you take that approach, you can hope that future developments might allow you to shorten that time period and give the residents of the Old Dominion a pleasant spring surprise.

Or, do you proceed in a more incremental way, issuing orders that have a shorter duration, acknowledging that this is a fast changing situation where you need to be responsive to new information?  Of course, all the while you would understand that you might well have to extend your shutdown, perhaps multiple times, and disappoint people who were hoping the current deadline would stick?  In that scenario, you’re doling out the bad news in bite-sized chunks, hoping it might go down easier.

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this, necessarily.  Some people are band-aid rippers, and others prefer to remove them a fraction at a time.  I’m normally a band-aid ripper, but I think if I were governor during this period I’d take the incremental approach.  We’re still gathering information about the coronavirus and its trajectory, and an incremental approach allows that information to be analyzed and addressed as it comes in, giving the governor the chance to keep the citizens of his or her state updated and abreast of the latest news.  The incremental approach seems a bit more humble and nuanced than the two-month thunderbolt edict issued from the executive.  And who knows?  There may be something to this “Wine with DeWine” thing, too.

The Real Lesson In Perry’s Departure

Yesterday Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his race for the Republican nomination for President.  His brief campaign started with a bang and ended with a whimper — his departure wasn’t even the top news story on a day that featured stories about open marriages and another debate — but it’s worth some reflection.

When Perry came into the race a few months ago he was viewed as a formidable contender.  Why not?  He is the popular, long-standing governor of one of our largest states.  Moreover, Texas’ economic and job-creation performance has been a bright spot during the recent economic doldrums.  Perry seemed like a candidate who could present a sharp contrast with President Obama on the job and economic issues that are the primary concerns of most Americans.

Alas for Governor Perry, he just wasn’t ready for a presidential campaign.  His stumbling performances in debates caused his poll numbers to shrivel to insignificance and led his potential supporters to look elsewhere.  He seemed unsteady, and never could gain traction.  The spotlight quickly moved on to others, and by the end of his campaign, Perry had become almost an irrelevant figure.

Perry’s rise and fall shows that running for President is different in kind, and not just in degree, from other political races.  The intensity of media scrutiny and criticism, the crucial role of capable staffing and planning, the paramount need to respond quickly and forcefully to missteps or changed circumstances — all of these distinguish a presidential campaign from, say, a governor’s race in your home state.

The story of Rick Perry is one that every potential candidate for President should consider before they make the decision to run.  Seeking the presidency is brutal.  Are they truly ready, where he wasn’t?