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Sterner Stuff

There must be something about hitting the end of a campaign cycle: two writers, David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens, both wrote despairing items this week about, well, as Slate subtitled the Hitchens piece: “What normal person would put up with the inane indignities of the electoral process?” Here’s Brooks:

[P]eople who run for public office put themselves in a position in which everybody is inclined to believe the worst about them. The things that are ripe for ridicule become famous. The accomplishments fade from view. The cynics of the world, which includes almost everybody when it comes to politics, write you off as a sleazeball because it feels so good and superior to do so. 

Both cover similar ground: the indignity of having one’s whole life (or some weird version thereof) open to the pettiest of attacks; the need to approve of equally brutal attacks on one’s opponent; the mind-numbing requirement of message discipline. The need to pander (Hitchens on populism: “All politics is yokel”). The humiliation of constantly asking for money. What all of that does to the people who are willing to submit to it. Of course, the classic treatment is Robert Redford in “The Candidate.” I also picture Bob Dole on thepresidential campaign trail, departing from his text to tell jokes that no one in the room but the appreciative press corps understood and enjoyed -- after which they would file their stories about how Bob Dole would never win because he couldn’t stick to his talking points.

And that was all pre-Macaca, before every candidate at every level had to be fully on every time. Hitchens is quite right: normal people won’t put up with it. Only someone intensely ambitious, someone desperate to have the job, is going to do it, especially once we’re talking about the higher and highest levels of politics.

Fortunately! Because that’s what makes the system work: intensely ambitious politicians who are desperate to get and then keep their jobs.

(Ah, but you saw that coming, didn’t you, regular readers).

The system needs -- is dependent on -- people who crave election and re-election so badly that they’re willing to do whatever it takes. Madison recognized the downside of that in Federalist 51, but he also realized that all that energy could be an enormous positive as well, because it could be harnessed. Ambitious politicians are going to work hard to figure out what voters really want, and deliver it to them. They’re going to want a healthy economy...because that will get them re-elected. They’re going to take the nation to war reluctantly and only when positive outcomes seem very likely at low costs (or if avoiding war will be highly costly)...because it will get them re-elected. 

They’re going to take representation seriously. That’s not actually guaranteed in a democracy It would be very easy for politicians to accept that most constituents don’t pay attention to most things that pols do, and so one might as well just ignore them -- and after all, there’s always a job as a lobbyist if things don’t go well. But fortunately, most of our actual real-life pols want to stay in office, whatever the indignities, and so they give in to the paranoid belief that The People Are Watching at all times.

(Yes, it’s a weird paradox: virtually no one in the district is paying attention to whatever their Members of Congress are doing, and yet everything’s on camera and all it seems to take is one moment of rudeness or disrespect or some other break in the representative relationship to doom a career).

Here’s some wild speculation: of the modern presidents, the one that was least ambitious was probably George W. Bush, and that’s a good part of why he was a terrible president. It’s rare to reach the presidency without aiming at it one’s entire life. Bill Clinton, as far as anyone can tell, was aiming for the White House from at least high school on. George H.W. Bush was ambitious for a long time. Ronald Reagan, remember, ran for president for about fifteen straight years before finally achieving it. And one could argue (indeed, I would probably argue, although as I said it’s pretty speculative) that lack of intense ambition was a real problem for the younger Bush in the White House. Would a more ambitious president, one who was really desperate for the job, have found himself fighting two wars in a haphazard way in an election year? Would a more ambitious president have been so apparently indifferent to the fate of New Orleans? Now, ambition isn’t foolproof, as a quick look at Richard M. Nixon will show. But the greatest presidents were certainly quite ambitious. In my opinion, you can’t be a great president without it.

Sure, I wish that pols didn’t have to spend so much time doing so many stupid things. I’d like to figure out reforms that reduce the amount of time they spend raising money. I wish that voters would reject pols that dig up meaningless dirt, especially on their opponents’ private lives. I’d love it if message discipline wasn’t necessary, and that complex thinking was rewarded over sound bites. But I’m glad that the system has evolved some hurdles that weed out the less interested. Give me the ambitious pol every time.