As you have probably noticed, the presidential campaign season now starts early, and apparently never ends. Bill Clinton, perhaps, was the first president who never stopped running for office—even well into his second term. Is this the legacy that even he would want?
Examining the current crop of presidential contenders, surely you have asked yourself: In a country of 300 million people, is this the best we can do? Of course, this is NOT the best we can do, although this may well be the best we can do until a few things change…
First of all, what kind of person wants to become president? The same person who would want to become ANY kind of politician. The presidency is just the logical endpoint of their quest, even if few get to reach it. So, let’s look at the kind of person who wants to get into politics.
My take on this is unchanged after decades. Indeed, it has only been greatly reinforced by meeting actual pols. The kind of person who goes into politics these days is precisely the same individual you most likely hated who ran for student offices in high school, or who became president of your condo or homeowners’ association. While there MAY have been some positive motivation at the outset, the overriding factors are ego, combined with something large missing from their lives.
No doubt, there are problems in your high school/condo project/neighborhood/congressional district/state/country but you either find a way to deal with them, or ignore them. You have reasoned correctly that since for the most part these problems derive from the human condition, they can probably not be solved until someone finds a way to change human nature. The budding politician, however, reckons that these problems can be solved…by him.
But, he can only solve these problems by being part of an organization. Even if this organization has a long history of NOT doing a terribly good job of solving problems, that is only because he has not yet been a part of it. Note that this line of “reasoning” can keep escalating, and even reverses direction once it hits the top:
- When I am in the House, I will do X…
- Elect me to the Senate, since I will now have more power to do X…
- Make me president, and I will REALLY have the power to do X…
- As president, I cannot do anything, since the House and Senate are against me.
Since it is much more difficult to actually do anything, then it is to PROMISE to do something, the budding pol is far more comfortable in campaign mode rather than doing-the-job mode. That’s why elected officials leave the nuts and bolts work to their staff, so they can hit the political trail essentially full time, turning up only for photo ops and roll call votes.
But there is another far more disturbing facet of promising instead of doing. Since promises are made to large audiences, they must—of necessity—be quite generic. That’s why no politician stands for anything anymore, and virtually all recorded statements are nothing more than platitudes.
It is amusing and depressing all at once to watch this play out even in areas where a definitive statement would very likely afford a huge advantage.
There is little doubt that the vast majority of Americans are vehemently opposed to illegal immigration, and a goodly number are even opposed to legal immigration. Moreover, there is plenty of poll data suggesting that a hard line position on this issue would garner tremendous electoral support. Yet, not a single major presidential contender will even take a moderately strong stand on illegal immigration, for the reasons already explained.
What follows from this is that politicians are unable to lead, since the only way to lead is to take a stand, and thus we come back to not doing anything, but always promising something, and always being in campaign mode.
The vicious circle can only be broken by harsh term limits, whereby the notion of a “career politician” is eliminated forever, and we instead have a group of people who will pursue public service on a short-term basis for a whole set of much more noble reasons.