Labor leader and Civil Rights activist Asa Philip Randolph met with President Roosevelt in 1940 to urge him to end discrimination in defense jobs. Roosevelt expressed support for Randolph’s goals then issued this challenge, “I agree with you. Now go out there and make me do it.”
Though probably apocryphal, that story offers a helpful insight. Our system of government places serious constraints on the ability of our elected officials to press the public in a new direction.
If we want to have Republican candidates who support sane, responsible public policy, then we have to create conditions on the ground that will support them. Developing that environment may call for collaboration with sitting officials and candidates, but the bulk of the work has to happen in the precincts. Gaining the support of candidates and elected officials is the final step, not the first, in any campaign for party reform.
Successful politicians rarely, if ever, truly lead on policy questions. Only a decade ago, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Mike Huckabee held substantially the same public position on same-sex marriage. The change we experienced did not originate with our elected officials. It emerged from the public at large. When it comes to policy, the voting public leads and our candidates follow.
There are rare instances in which a politician endorses a position unpopular with their base and ‘takes one for the team.’ President Johnson’s decision to press for meaningful Civil Rights legislation and the first President Bush’s tax hike stand out as prominent examples. Neither of them served a second term. These are exceptions that prove the rule.
In thinking about the role of candidates in rebuilding the GOP, It might be helpful to start by resolving a few persistent myths about life as a politician. Foremost among these is the strange notion that people run for office to get rich. Let’s be absolutely clear about this for it will be critical when recruiting candidates – there is no money in politics.
Once again, just for emphasis – there is no money in politics.
Yes, there are a handful of exceptions. The Clintons stand out as a popular counter-example, but once again they prove the rule. Politics bankrupted them. The real money started flowing when Bill Clinton left Washington. The Clintons would almost certainly be wealthier today if they had never entered public service.
The claim that politicians make lots of money resembles claims about people earning six-figure incomes selling Mary Kay or Amway. A handful of people manage to do it, but anyone who can make a living doing that would probably earn ten times more if they’d pursued a real job.
It is true that your Congressman earns over $170K a year. So does your accountant at the peak of her career, and she doesn’t have to balance the demands of three quarters of a million people. For the kind of people with the talent, resources, connections, and education that are generally required for the job, Congress is almost always a pay cut. That pay cut becomes seriously taxing for State Legislators and local officials.
If that weren’t enough, being in politics costs a fortune. Your Congressman must, on that low-six-figure salary, maintain at least two households while traveling constantly. Many of them live in dorm-like settings with other officials in Washington while their families stay behind in their home districts. At the state level this means practically living in your car as you log mile after mile back and forth to the capital and covering every corner of your district.
And it gets worse, because the work itself is pretty miserable.
Your job may frustrate you with its TPS reports and multiple, overlapping bosses, but elected officials face far worse. A relatively benign paperwork mistake can expose a politician to a whole range of exposures up to and including potential criminal penalties. They are barraged with incoherent demands from the kinds of people who leave you tapping your foot in the grocery store check-out line while they search for the right coupon. Their chosen career leaves them at beck-and-call all day and all year with no real escape or respite. All that before you factor in the constant drumbeat of character assassination, partisan hostility, and random death threats from tinfoil-hat-wearing wingnuts.
Why do people agree to perform this grueling job? First of all, hardly anyone does. Most of the best qualified people refuse to even consider the possibility of public service. That’s a concern about the shape of our system that was expressed from the very outset by men like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.
Those who do choose to run for office generally either have a pressing desire to serve others, a powerful drive to feel loved by lots of people they don’t know, or a touch of the crazy. Most politicians possess all three characteristics in some blend. As political conditions have grown worse, the overall contribution of “crazy” to the mix has grown.
It is rare to find a politician who possesses a deep interest in public policy. In fact, for most politician an interest in policy is a liability. Running for Congress is not substantially different from running for student council. Think back to your senior year of high school. What were the most pressing policy questions driving the election for class President? You probably don’t remember because there weren’t any.
The winner was the person that possessed the broadest network of relationships that were the most generally positive in sentiment. That is also, in almost every case, how you win a race for state legislature or Congress. And the farther down the ballot you go, the less influence policy positions have on outcomes. While they may feel deeply about one or two policy questions, most elected officials absorb the bulk of their political platform from the network on which they depend.
Good politicians focus their energy not on policy ambitions, but on elections. Politicians do not keep their job in politics by writing the finest laws. They keep their job by winning the most votes. There are examples of elected officials who have used their office as a platform to promote policy templates beyond the mainstream. Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are prominent examples. That model is rare because it can only be sustained under unique circumstances with the benefit of a niche electorate. It also tends to compromise one’s ability to actually participate in shaping legislation. Neither Sanders nor Paul has experienced any success whatsoever in seeing their policy interests become law.
When do we get politicians who lead? When someone opens up new ground on which to build a base of support, and a smart candidate recognizes the existence of that new space and exploits it. Reagan is the textbook example.
He recognized an emerging, unserved opening around law and order issues at home and the Soviet threat abroad. Reagan spent twenty years working at various levels to further develop and expand that base before riding it to the White House.
By contrast, John McCain failed in 2000 because the ground on which he wished to build a campaign had not yet been prepared. His campaign attracted a lot of enthusiastic support from voters, far more than Bush was receiving, but like some of Reagan’s earlier efforts, there was no institutional base to support his run. He was not attracting enough of the grassroots activists likely to vote in a primary, donate money, and promote his campaign on the ground.
McCain failed again in 2008 because, unlike Reagan, in the years after 2000 he did not work with grassroots activists to build institutional support around the voter base he had begun to attract. Instead, he tried to inherit and pander to the existing Republican base. That was not enough to carry him in a general election.
Republicans badly need another version of McCain’s 2000 campaign, but we aren’t going to get it until we’ve worked through several of the other steps described in prior posts. First, we need to build a simple statement of beliefs that can form the core of a hyphenated-Republican appeal. Then we need to assemble donors and think tanks that can support the policy and campaign sides of an effort to activate new voters. Once that is in place, we can expect to have success in recruiting candidates and passing legislation.
There is some good news. It is not necessary to build new candidates from the ground up. Existing candidates will do. In the early stages this may include outreach to existing or former Republican officials, especially in the north and near urban areas, who are frustrated by the dilemmas they face. They can be extremely helpful in knitting together the organizational structure we need.
What we cannot ask of them, at least in the early stages, is for them to take the lead in building a new structure for the party. That quote from Roosevelt should echo in our minds. It is up to us to prepare the ground on which rational, competitive candidates can begin to build their campaigns.
At the highest levels of the ballot, by 2024, our best shot at victory may be someone who got trounced in primaries 2016 or 2020 (Marco Rubio, I’m looking at you). Take a reasonably competent figure who struggled to gain traction in an environment that required humiliating, miserable pandering. Give them a chance to run on a platform they can respect, with just enough of the institutional support they need, and watch McCain’s 2000 campaign play out in way that matches the results from Obama’s 2008 campaign.
That’s what this blueprint is meant to achieve. While recruiting great candidates is part of that blueprint, it probably happens last. There are Republicans out there in prominent positions who would embrace a reality-based template for governing. It’s our job to make them do it.