Friday, October 15, 2010

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 the presidential 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.


  1. Interesting, but one-dimensional analysis. Here is where you go astray: "Ambitious politicians are going to work hard to figure out what voters really want, and deliver it to them."

    Some of the time - maybe even most. But this doesn't apply to ideologues - and both neocons and tea party darlings fall into that camp.

    Also, this gives voters way too much credit. their ideas of what they think they want are fickle and ephemeral. Even if that were not so, how could you define what voters want in a country so starkly divided along so many fault lines as we are?

    You're also neglecting the power of propaganda.


  2. To take JzB's comment and run with it:

    Does our system really screen for people who are craven for votes?

    I won't disagree one bit that the system screens out most people who just want to "luck in" to the job. For every Bush, there's, well, every other president. For every Randall S. "Front Porch" Harmon, there's the other thousands of members of Congress.

    However, does the difficulty of the process screen like a kind of Downsian force to the middle of the relevant electorate? I'm not sure it does that, at least in short bursts. Over the long run, yes: the unqualified wackos that win this year tend to lose next year. Tend to. Think about who Rand Paul is trying to replace, though: Jim Bunning. Plenty of decent allocations that this guy has been, quite frankly, nutty for years. So, yes, Randall Harmon was a one-term wonder. But, he was there for one-term.

    Now, take a Christine O'Donnell. (PLEASE!) She's got absosmurfly no chance of winning because she's too far outside her state, but she could get elected in many states. Or Michelle Bachmann. Or Alan Grayson. Clearly folks like these are either not motivated solely by reelection concerns, or have drunk the kool aid and think that the majority actually agree with them. I tend to think the former. Thus, we have to admit a second type of person that difficulty screens for: zealots. You seem to posit that only those that want to win for its own sake will win over time. I'd submit that the person that REALLY wants to get in there and change policy (more likely to be an ideologue of some sort) may also be willing to clear those hurdles.

    Our system doesn't necessarily filter these folks out, either. They get incumbency advantages. Our modern campaign finance system and polarization yields us $14 million for Sharron Angle last quarter, and Joe Wilson raises $1 million overnight (as does his opponent!). Wave elections sweep in Harmon, but they also sweep in Grayson. Safer districts give us others (though their districts are rarely as insane as they are). Scandals happen. And, the state of the economy essentially sets most of the table.

    Now, all this said: I ALSO like this system. Why? Because I like the idea that we have members voting their conscience that the voters of their districts could turn out. I like that Bachmann can be as batshit crazy as she wants to be (I just wish her district would wise up). I like that Barney Frank can do what he thinks is in the national interest. But, as I've alluded to many times, I'm a Burkean elitist.

  3. Just one quibble here: Is there anything distinctively American, let alone Madisonian, about any of this? Don't politicians in every democratic country tend to be ambitious people?

  4. Two types of ambitious pols -- the ruthlessly ambitious and the appropriately ambitious.

    The former -- Nixon and LBJ come to mind easily -- let absolutely nothing, or no person, get in their way, and tend to take an amoral attitude in getting and then wielding power. At times however, this ambition can be so toxic as to skew their perception of reality, including the political lay of the land. And so the most ambitious of them all, LBJ, could take his overwhelming 1964 landslide victory, won in part as a stable, status quo peacemaker as against the warhawk and reckless Barry G, and then upon swearing-in basically do a 180 and decide to massively escalate in VN. Not exactly what the people were clamoring for in 1964 or 5, and by '68 he and his war were both so unpopular that he had to forego his final term in office.

    LBJ, by the way, as early as age 12 was telling classmates he was going to be president some day. Their response was to tell him they wouldn't vote for him. His response was I won't be needing your votes (see Caro, Rbt, vol 1).

    Nixon, the other ruthlessly ambitious pol of recent vintage, did do most of the things -- winding down in VN (except for some more bombing in NVN and Cambodia ...), signing liberal legislation from the strongly Dem congress -- that were both popular and designed to get him re-elected. But eventually his amoral and even criminal attitudes towards wielding and keeping power -- as in the overall Watergate scandal profile -- caught up to him.

    These toxic, borderline types tend to make it through our electoral system successfully (until they hit the shoals of their own demons) because either they're exceptionally accomplished liars (Lyndon) or they have accomplished liars working to package them as acceptable (Nixon and Roger Ailes).

    Appropriately ambitious would be Clinton or Kennedy or FDR or Lincoln.

    Reagan, btw, strikes me as, at least initially, more the passive vessel for highly ambitious business ideologue types in his kitchen cabinet group, as opposed to someone organically ambitious like Clinton. Ike, too, probably. Certainly when he got to the WH, he, like Reagan, wasn't exactly the hardest working prez. True of Shrub also, though he probably had more inner drive to reach the top after his Poppy made it -- and then to show Dad how he could do it better.

  5. Re Lincoln, usually considered our greatest president, while I consider him "appropriately" ambitious, iirc his highest and most consistently expressed ambition as he came of age and got a taste of politics was not to become president but to be a US senator. It was his wife, Mary Todd, who was the more ambitious of the two and the one, supposedly, who kept pushing him to think above the senate (which Abe never achieved anyway).

    Of course, back then a much simpler and less costly era, a candidate for prez mostly could campaign from his front porch, and so there really wasn't the question about Who would be crazy enough to go through all that?

  6. Well, Lincoln's big ambition was just live on in his fellow man's esteem. Sure, in the era of Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, the Senate seemed like the best place to do that, but it was only a means, y'know? If you convinced him there was another means to the same end, he'd go for it, but his basic ambition didn't change.

  7. 1. "and then upon swearing-in basically do a 180 and decide to massively escalate in VN."

    Hadn't LBJ already made the decision to escalate prior to election day?

    2. Re ambition, i ask from total ignorance:is Polk an exception? if not, did he lose his ambition while in office?

  8. Hadn't LBJ already made the decision to escalate prior to election day?

    Yes, I think the record shows that (his NSAM 273, issued a few days after Dallas after meeting with the JCS and his nat'l security team but not made public, subtly but fundamentally altered JFK's policy of advisers withdrawing w/n 2 yrs as 273 placed emphasis on US CIA covert actions and determination not to let SVN go commie), but I meant a 180 in terms of what the public perceived and what LBJ wanted them to believe.

    Despite Johnson's 1964 Tonkin Gulf Res, his presidential campaign was run on the platform of "not sending American boys over to do what Asian boys ought to be doing themselves." Basically he was the peace candidate against warhawk Barry. The GoTR was designed to protect his right flank and show that while he was stressing peace, he would not allow the US to be pushed around.

    When he began escalating in early '65, it was all deliberately done incrementally in re military activity and kept low-key w/r/t the WH releasing info, as Johnson rightly understood how unpopular and shocking a sudden announcement that we were going to war would be.

    The extremely ambitious LBJ must have thought that while the war wouldn't be popular for a while, he would be able to either win the war by the time of his re-elect or otherwise manage things to ensure such outcome. But as in 1960, the supposedly politically brilliant LBJ calculated wrong.

  9. JzB,

    I'm not giving voters any credit, actually. I think politicians tend to be paranoid, and think that voters will notice what they do even if voters don't.


    I don't know...I think what I would guess about Bachmann and Grayson is that there's a potential problem with the system if pols can make a lot more money by being extremists and cashing in on that. But on the broader point, I think there are different types (not the right word, but whatever) of ambition, and that I suspect that some are better than others. I may try to write a bit more about that, though.


    The big difference is that the American system has so many more politicians, and so many more that are individually important.

  10. You're right, politicians crave reelection. That's why House incumbents set out to amass $2M ... so as to achieve reelection. They're ambitious about that for sure, but not much else, I suspect.

    Remove the advantages of incumbency, like franking, additional staffing and all the rest, and this all changes. Make them take campaign contribution ONLY from registered voters in their own districts... all of it transparently identified... and it REALLY changes.

    You'd see some serious ambition, at that point. And it'd be real ambition... the kind of ambition that competes in the marketplace of ideas, and takes on all challengers.

  11. While we're on Lincoln, recall the comment of William Herndon, his long-time law partner, that Lincoln's ambition "was a little engine that knew no rest."

  12. Nixon is better than you're giving him credit for.

  13. "[Ambitious politicians are] 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."

    I think this has it backwards. As Lincoln himself pointed out, great ambition isn't concerned with electability or "the good of the country." Its sole concern, first and last, is with DISTINCTION and glory for oneself - and if that means pushing the country to war, then so be it. This kind of ambition motivates tyrants and statesman both. The power that comes from craven political pandering, on the other hand, looks like the lowest form of ambition of all.

    Lincoln said it best (Address to Young Men's Lyceum, 1838):

    "The history of the world tells us that men of ambition and talents will continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them...[they belong] to the family of the lion, and the tribe of the eagle. Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us?...Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down."

  14. MFA,

    That's a good point (and quote), and I don't really disagree -- see my second post from over the weekend. I wouldn't dismiss the electoral type of ambition, but I agree that there's an issue with ambition for glory that might lead a president to risk disaster in war in order to have a chance at greatness. OTOH, presidents don't get to act alone, and Membe3rs of Congress might be more concerned with their careers than with the president's glory, and slow that down.


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