Why Don’t the Best People Run?

What do we really, really want in our candidates?

When I read the latest Rasmussen report that only one out of four Americans believe their elected representatives are the “best person for the job,” my first reaction was: That many?

My second reaction was: If three out of four people recognize the problem, then why do most incumbents still get re-elected? Voters complain, but why don’t they throw the bums out until they get people they actually respect?

Congressional approval numbers hover at all-time lows. Americans under age 30, for example, give Congress an 83 percent disapproval rate, perhaps feeding a worrisome alienation from the whole representative system. And sorry, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner, but this hasn’t improved since Republicans took the Senate in November and starting cutting deals with Obama on trade and Iran

Our complaints about the caliber of our political leaders are nothing new. The 19th century British historian Viscount James Bryce examined the reasons so few “great and striking men” became the then-new republic’s president. In “The American Commonwealth,” he contends that since the brilliant framers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, most of  America’s chief executives (Abraham Lincoln, of course, excepted) had been utterly commonplace. Franklin Pierce? Rutherford B. Hayes? Who remembers them?

Fast forward to today, with the distinct possibility that another Bush will be running against another Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Since 1980, there has been only one election — 2012 — when neither a Bush nor a Clinton was in the running for the nomination, or on the party’s ticket.As Bryce recognized, what we need in the White House is not so much a person of genius, but a person we can trust.

Are we to believe that in a country of 300-plus million people, only the Clintons or the Bushes are truly best suited for the job? Best to manage the economy? Run our foreign policy? Are the Bushes and the Clintons really “the best and the brightest”?

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Related: America or Washington?

Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, and Ross Perot before them, are the exceptions. Most successful corporate CEOs shun politics because of the intense personal and professional scrutiny. Why complicate a good life with concern over what some 28-year-old oppo researcher might dig up?

Think of the many successful, innovative corporate CEOs, scientists, former military officers, entrepreneurs — they create jobs, lead and inspire teams of people, make things that actually improve people’s lives. How many in politics can point to similar results?

Some of the common excuses from those who say “I’d run, but —” include:

Show me the money.

It is the case that House members haven’t had a pay raise since 2009. And Washington, D.C., is an expensive place to live. But the nearly $200,000 annual salary is four times the median salary in the United States and still slightly more than the average CEO’s. Since when was elected office supposed to be a gravy train? Travel, staff salaries, and office supplies are all covered, plus all the other benefits that come with that silly pin they wear on their lapels. Suck it up, buttercups.

The constant fundraising is a grind.   

The average House candidate will need to raise $1.6 million each election cycle. The figure jumps to at least $100 million, and probably closer to a $1 billion, for a presidential run. Yes, that’s a lot of Rotary Club meetings, Lincoln Day Dinners, and telephone calls to party donors. The sheer time it takes to raise money detracts from time better spent hearing from constituents, making good policy, or blocking bad policy. Yet the worst aspect of the perpetual chase for donations is that it necessarily produces politicians who serve the donor class, instead of the working class. Thus, passing unwieldy legislation on issues such as trade or immigration becomes the obsession of political leadership even though the grassroots wants the opposite policy.

There’s no job security.

Since 2009, roughly one-quarter of the Democrats in the House or Senate have quit or lost their elections. And the problem is? High turnover means the people are paying attention and holding politicians accountable. That’s the way it should be. Given the abysmally low approval numbers Congress gets year after year, most voters undoubtedly think there’s too much job security in Congress.

Only the perfect need apply.

The idea of having one’s entire personal and professional history culled for the slightest peccadillo or impropriety is, to say the least, a major turn-off to running for office. Who hasn’t made mistakes, other than the Clintons, of course? Conservative candidates who profess a belief in “family values” often will not survive the scandals a more liberal candidate would because the biased media takes a unique delight in exposing that brand of hypocrisy. Should there be a statute of limitations on stupid mistakes in order to attract a better caliber of people into politics? That would be nice, but of course is impractical. The media will muckrake. Adversaries will seek advantage by any means. Disclosing one’s past foibles isn’t fun, but the act of transparency itself can demonstrate the type of character we need in politics today.

What we need in the White House is not so much a person of genius, but a person we can trust.

As Bryce recognized, what we need in the White House is not so much a person of genius, but a person we can trust.

“[A] president need not be a man of brilliant intellectual gifts,” he wrote. “Firmness, common sense, and most of all, honesty, an honesty above all suspicion of personal interest, are the qualities which the country chiefly needs in its first magistrate.”

But “common sense” and“honesty” are not that easy to come by. We cannot find leaders with these qualities unless they are willing to enter the process. Nor can we find them if the media insist on treating every race as a demolition derby, where their job is to provide cover for the establishment’s preferred choices. Nor can we find them if the donor class cares more about buying influence than about getting the best people for the job. Our lack of good choices in political campaigns represents a failure of America’s elites, who should insist on the same type of excellence in politics that they demand in other aspects of life.

Running for office isn’t for the faint of heart. Yet those who care enough to put their own self-interest — and privacy — second by running for office, can have a profound impact on the future of our great nation. If running for office were easier, the process less mean and intrusive, we’d have more candidates, but would they really be better candidates and better politicians? As for the unforgiving media environment, do we really want people who melt under media questioning across the table from the likes of Iran and Putin?

Surely America can still find representatives of both courage and principle. We must.
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