Is the presidency “overgrown”? And, does the nature of today’s elections run off good candidates?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Haley Barbour is necessarily a “good candidate”, I’m just saying, as Roger Pilon points out and Kyle Wingfield echoes, that his reasons for withdrawing from the race seem to me would apply to many people who might make a good president but never run the race because of the atmosphere and requirements of the race. Not necessarily the requirements of the job, but what it takes to get the job.
Gov. Barbour’s explanation for why he will not seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination — because a candidate today “is embracing a ten-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else,” and he cannot make such a commitment — is not only refreshingly candid but points to a much deeper problem.
We are moving inexorably not simply to news but to politics 24/7/365. And what better example than our current part-time president who, with no primary challenger in sight, is already on the campaign trail (did he ever leave it?), when the election is 19 months away. Some of us are old enough to remember when elected officials served — and ran for office or re-election only around election time.
Part of the reason for the change is the need today for vast amounts of campaign cash. But the deeper reason, I submit, is because politics has taken over so much of life. When government was more limited, and we didn’t look to it to provide our every need and want, those who “governed” didn’t feel such a need to cater to us — and we had better things to do anyway than obsess over politics. Calvin Coolidge took naps in the White House — in his pajamas! Imagine that today.
There is no question to any objective observer that communications and technology today have radically changed the "atmosphere" of politics with the 24/7/365 news cycle. That includes the expansion of the pundocracy to include influential bloggers and the like as well.
Those changes have made it necessary for incumbent presidents as well as serious candidates to begin their runs for office well before an election to ensure they either remain prominent in the news cycle or at least appear with some regularity. It’s about name recognition and money. Without the first, you don’t get the second. And the best way to get the first is to be prominent in the media coverage.
But it seems it also has some fairly serious deleterious effects as well. For one it puts incumbents and candidates on an extended, some would argue “perpetual” campaign cycle. As Pilon notes, Obama is already campaigning for a second term 19 months before the election. As for the GOP candidates, how long have the candidacies of each of the supposed contenders been talked about? Literally since the last presidential election in 2008.
It also seems to have created a new class of politician – the celebrity politician. Instead of fairly anonymous public servants, we get this elite ruling class who think their every word is plated in gold. And that is a big part of the problem we have with our political class today.
Anyway, understanding the extended run today’s candidates must make to even be taken seriously, the present requirements obviously dissuade many clearly qualified candidates from taking on the onerous and time consuming necessities of running at all.
Who does that leave us with? Well the narcissistic, the overly ambitious and the professional politician who wants to be a celebrity pol. Seriously. The present occupant of the White House hits me as a combination of all three of those who loves the celebrity of the position he holds but apparently hates the job (and, frankly isn’t up to it).
In fact, it has begun to appear that achieving office is the priority rather than governing. How in the world does one explain Barack Obama except by saying he was the one with the best shot at winning despite the thinnest and least impressive resume of any candidate for the presidency in history?
Another problem is the job of president itself. The reason Coolidge was able to take naps is we had, in comparison to today, a very limited government. But we’ve expanded it to the point now that it would be almost unrecognizable to those of the Coolidge era. Wingfield hits that:
The presidency is too-large-for-life because the president is the head of a government that is simply too large. (The too-large-for-life factor also reportedly is why Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who I’d place well above Barbour on my list, has been on the fence about running.)
Not to excuse bad decisions by any president, but I have to wonder who, exactly, could perform the job as it stands today, evolved and mutated in so many ways. And let’s not overlook that President Obama and his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, didn’t help matters with their efforts to expand the federal government and the president’s role in it.
In fact, I think the too-large-for-life presidency also reinforces the polarization of politics — which in turn further explains the “all-consuming effort,” in Barbour’s words, it takes to become and serve as president. A president invariably will disappoint or even anger his base with some of his actions. But, because he is responsible for so much, his supporters are often hesitant to object too strenuously, lest it weaken his ability to act on other policies on which he and they agree.
So, we got less self-policing of Bush by Republicans on the growth of government and spending — at least until the very end of his presidency, when the magnitude of the problem made it impossible to ignore any longer. And now we get crickets from the mostly left-wing anti-war movement when Obama extends the war in Afghanistan and launches a new one in Libya.
I think he makes a good point. The expanded role of government, and thus the presidency, combined with the constant news cycle and the feedback from the partisan groups to their “people” added in has made it extremely difficult to govern – for anyone. When you then introduce incompetence or inexperience or extreme partisanship (or all three) to the office, it becomes impossible. And that’s pretty much the situation today.
As Wingfield concludes, “If we want a better president and government, we need to ask them to do less”.
And doing less may mean less onerous and intrusive campaigns which may again attract statesmen and leaders to undertake the job of the presidency instead of self-promoting, overly ambitious celebrity politicians without either the experience or the competence to do the job.
Of course that also assumes the American people have learned something about the mistake they made (and why they made it) this last cycle and are planning on fixing it in 2012.