Herman Cain, 2012 and Professional Politicians
It is not my attention to pile on Herman Cain or to get further into the abortion imbroglio covered in detail here at Redstate. Instead, I want to take a moment to talk about the concept of “professional politicians.”
People love to hate politicians and often for good reason. And in our hyper-populist mood these days there is a scrambling to be anti-politician, anti-Washington, anti-government, etc. Conservatives in particular are enamored of businessmen and figures who can plausibly claim to free from beltway and big government thinking.
Obviously, Herman Cain benefits from this dynamic; and Mitt Romney has – awkwardly and unsuccessfully in my opinion – tried to use this to his advantage. There is one small problem with this idea: it is naive and unrealistic and leads only to problems for candidates and their supporters.
The truth is that being a politician is a profession whether we like it or not. Outside of local positions, and very small jurisdictions, elected office is a full time job. The size and scope of government, and the nature of modern society, means the larger the responsibility and power attached to an office the more difficult it is both to get elected and to do the job.
In my opinion the the idea of citizen legislators is a myth; a nostalgic belief that does not match reality. This is true at the state level. Budgets and legislative issues require a knowledge base and skill level of a professional; you can’t just walk in off the street and be successful.
In a similar way, running for office requires a set of skills and base of knowledge that is beyond the average person. Yes, you ca surround yourself with good staff and good advice but running a good campaign is a skill and requires experience; the more you do it, generally, the better you become.
Take all of this to the presidential level and the pressures and complexity of it all is off the charts. So why do we expect that someone with very little experience in this area can just waltz on to the stage and succeed?
Herman Cain is a talented businessman. He obviously has experience with leadership and management. And this background brings with it a unique ability to speak to the issues from a fresh perspective and in a way that appeals to many outside the political process.
And you can’t be involved in business at the level Cain has without being politically involved. Cain is no stranger to politics or to government. But running for president is in many ways sui generis; something unlike anything else.
And I hate to break it to fans of Herman Cain, but I think the last few weeks have shown that Cain is not quite ready for the pressure involved. The media spotlight is hostile and white hot. Everything you say is scrutinized and attacked. Your history, your motives, your every decision is researched and probed for weaknesses (unless of course you happen to be Barack Obama).
Most people simply can’t handle this. The list of people who have in important ways been ambushed by this process or who have not held up under the pressure is long. Michelle Bachman, whatever you think of her positions, etc., went from building momentum and gaining support to fringe pretty quickly. Or, and again whatever you think of her choices and or style, Sarah Palin; thrust into the spotlight and forced to compete on the national level in the most hostile of circumstances.
All too often conservatives swing between a naive idealism and a harsh, almost Machiavellian, pragmatism both, and often ironically, infused with a strong element of the cult of personality. We latch on to a rising star or a fresh face and insist they are the second coming of Ronald Reagan and George Washington combined and deny for as long as it is possible that they might not sweep into power and change Washington forever.
Or we get behind what we perceive as the most electable candidate and then insist that they have no faults or that their are no trade offs involved in politics. After a loss, or when the responsibility of governing grows tiresome, the blame game begins and we too often fail to wrestle with the blinders we put on during the campaign.
I would suggest that there is an important conservative principle in seeing politics are the art of the possible. It is important to play the ball as it lies; to take a metaphor from the game of golf. And we ignore this reality at our peril.
This doesn’t meant that we abandon principles or turn harshly cynical. Yes, first principles and policy stands are important; as is the ability trust a candidate to follow through on promises and make the tough choices based on their ideals.
But it does recognize that there are no perfect candidates, that politics is a necessary part of our public life and that it requires skills and experience just like any other profession.
You don’t just jump from never having run for public office to becoming president of the United States. You can’t just figure out how to act on one of the largest stages imaginable on the fly. Running for president isn’t like running a business.
And “Lame Stream Media” or not, effective communication, management and style play a crucial role in success today. Is it fair or ideal? No, but it is reality.
In my opinion, on a number of issues recently Cain has simply not shown the basic level of competency necessary to run for president let alone get elected. When pushed to take his message from basic marketing to more detailed policy debate he has offered confusion and, at times, outright incoherence. Given what is at stake this is not acceptable.
Now, before the flame wars begin let me just say that none of the candidates have exactly shone in this area. They all have weaknesses from seemingly doing nothing else but run for president to all the baggage of a long political career; from brutal honest that quickly slips into the fevered swaps to an inability to defend and sell your very strong record of achievement.
And to be honest, I think Michelle Bachman in many ways forshadowed Cain’s problems. I also think Rick Santorum’s spectacular electoral failure the last time he ran for office, and his inability to come off as anything but angry, make him fatally flawed.
So here is my, probably equally naive, plea: lets debate and discuss this primary with an awareness that politics is a profession that requires skills and experience; and that all of the candidates have strengths and weaknesses. We need to decide who we think has the best blend of the skills and experience necessary to get elected and succeed in office. We need to decide what policy or beliefs are non-negotiable and which tradeoffs we are willing to make in order to move our ideals forward (or at the least prevent further destruction).
In other words, we need to go into this with our eyes wide open to the actual political landscape we find ourselves in not the one we wish existed.
This isn’t easy I know, but it is the task that is set before us.