Looking at the domestic political scene, the only thing more depressing than the presidential campaign starting this early is the appalling quality of the candidates. Let’s examine how we got ourselves into the present circumstances.
Long ago, most who got into politics considered it a short-term form of public service, and while some of these people did advance to higher office, most simply returned to the private sector. Back in the day, most officeholders were not only not enriched by this service, in some cases the networking opportunities backfired, as they made more enemies than friends in the process.
One cogent example is Alexander Hamilton, who, after setting up the country’s financial system, and being perhaps the greatest single architect of how this country should work, could never jump-start his New York law practice, and died deeply in debt. His death (1804) in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr derived from political intrigue.
Stripped down to its core, the function of government is nothing more than to provide essential services for the lowest possible tax consequences. Of course, debate will ensue as to what these essential services are to be. Moreover, as the role of government—especially the Federal government—expanded beyond all reason, and certainly far beyond what is even remotely implied in the Constitution, it became quite easy to buy votes and complete constituencies by awarding this or that favor.
In fact, as the events of 9/11 clearly demonstrate, providing essential services, including the most essential of all—protecting the lives of its citizens—has taken a distant backseat to awarding favors. It can hardly be otherwise when a politician’s only real job is getting reelected, and, absent grotesque corruption, is the only criterion used to judge him.
Incumbency is of great value, returning a high percentage of current officeholders to their posts. But, everyone had to be elected the first time, so how does this work?
In certain cases, an incumbent will not be running, providing a somewhat level playing field, notwithstanding the ridiculous gerrymandering of representational districts. The campaign in this case will always be a combination of pandering to likely voters, lightly veiled attacks on the opponent, and overblown presentations of the candidate’s curriculum vitae.
In a race between a long-term incumbent and a political neophyte, the incumbent will stress his experience, what he has done for his constituents (hyped to laughable levels), and how his opponent is not qualified for the job. Meanwhile, the challenger will have to attack the incumbent’s record and promise more favors along with the assurance that taxes will not increase.
On the surface at least, there is no better qualification for a job, than to already have it. This is especially true in government, where performance is almost never an issue, even if this very point is raised in a campaign.
Again, absent grotesque corruption, a poorly performing officeholder has several built-in excuses, including the actions of his political opponents; unforeseen matters that took precedence (remember Katrina?); and having to stand on principle, ruining necessary compromises. Besides, just put him back in office once more, and much needed progress will now be made. How this next term will be free of the negative circumstances that gave him his excuses is never explained.
Finally, the whole matter of “qualification” for office bears some scrutiny. Many governors have become president, using the analogy of running a state to running the country. Indeed, when compared to senators, who serve in a legislative rather than an executive function, governors would seem to be more qualified.
One difference between and a governor and the president is that any foreign relations activity on behalf of a governor is strictly to bring business to his state. Another is that the president is chief executive of an entity that can print its own money, and need not show any fiscal responsibility.
Thus, one can make the weak and sardonic argument that senators are more familiar with practical foreign relations, and are used to being fiscally irresponsible, being part of the Federal system. The governor analogy breaks down when applied to many smaller states, including the infamous example of Howard Dean’s ill-fated candidacy. Dean’s Vermont, hardly analogous to the country at large, has no big cities, few immigrants, fewer minorities, and few industrial or environmental issues.
Sometimes, the subject of qualification barely comes up, as a candidate such as Barack Obama can simply be anointed by the media and other supporters, for a variety of reasons, none of which are wholesome.
The very nature of politics just does not select for either the best or the brightest, rewarding instead those with the biggest egos, greatest thirst for power, and most profound lack of principles. Don’t expect things to change anytime soon.