What Makes Politicians Run

The State Funeral Of Former South African President Nelson Mandela

Waldman wonders why ambition isn’t an acceptable reason to run for high office:

I have to ask why we assume there is something morally superior about the “conviction politician” like Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, and something morally inferior about the guy who just thinks he’d like to be president and would do the job well. No matter how firm their ideology, conviction politicians are just as ambitious as people like Romney or Bill Clinton who knew they would one day run for president from the time they got to middle school.

What happens then is that the less ideological candidate, who can’t say “I’m running for president to defeat the socialist menace that lurks in every free school lunch,” has to convince us that he’s running because of some equally powerful impulse that exists outside of his own desires. So he presents himself as something like a firefighter. He doesn’t want the glory, he doesn’t want the hug from the grateful homeowner, the nation is on fire and he has no choice but to douse the flames with his brilliant leadership.

Larison’s take:

The easy answer is that many of the people that pay the closest attention to politics make this assumption about politicians because they have very firm and strongly-held political convictions.

They take an interest in election campaigns because they want someone holding as many of their convictions as possible to prevail, and so they tend to view conviction politicians more sympathetically than opportunists or technocratic managers. Many activists and pundits also tend to be more interested in conviction politicians because they want to be able to identify with a candidate because of what he professes to believe, and for the same reason they will usually be harder on candidates whose convictions are easily changed or cast aside. The opportunist is viewed with suspicion because he appears to be (may indeed be) unprincipled and is therefore potentially unscrupulous and untrustworthy, and the manager type is perceived as dull, bloodless, and excessively calculating.

Bernstein thinks of ambition “first as a job requirement for all politicians and second as a plus, not a minus”:

The idea is that ambition isn’t just about getting to the White House, but also seeking to be personally powerful after getting there — that it’s the (obsessive?) quest for power that produces presidential success. I’ve made this point about George W. Bush. As I see it, Bush was not particularly ambitious, and thus saw nothing wrong with his Vice President and his Secretary of Defense running the show, with predictably terrible results. Why predictably terrible? Because ambitious presidents aren’t going to accept the harm to themselves from catastrophic policy failure, while true believers (in the Oval Office or elsewhere) just might.

It’s worth noting that the consensus choices for the three greatest American presidents — Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt — were all extraordinarily ambitious. None is usually classified as a true believer. Granted, there’s no guarantee of success: Richard Nixon was surely a very ambitious non-ideologue, and he was a terrible president.

(Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)