The towering presences of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have so dominated the Democratic party that almost all the entrepreneurial action in building a hybrid media-political career has been on the Republican side. But that could change in the run-up to 2016. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who almost won the 2004 Democratic nomination, said, “You never say never” when reporters asked him if he planned to challenge Hillary Clinton. Another potential Democratic candidate could be California governor Jerry Brown, who has already run for president three times and is known to harbor little goodwill toward the Clintons. After his last effort, in 1992, he kept his media profile alive by becoming — what else? — a radio-talk-show host.
Should we worry about the perception that politics is taking on a circus-like aspect more than at any time in American history? Probably not, in my view. The trend is perhaps inevitable with the proliferation of media outlets and the increasing tendency toward celebrity worship.
Campaigns have fallen prey to freak-show coverage in which almost everything a candidate does or has done is potential fodder for scandal or exaggeration. In 2011, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels decided at the last minute not to run for president. That made many wonder just how much Game Change, a best-selling book about the behind-the-scenes pressures on the 2008 presidential candidates, may be influencing potential candidates — pushing them to take a pass on running. The book, written by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, was scrutinized by several would-be presidential aspirants and their families for its depiction of life on the campaign trail and the attendant tensions that can develop between candidates and their spouses. South Dakota senator John Thune acknowledged that part of the reason he declined to run was that his wife had read the book. “It was not helpful,” he told reporters, noting that they both viewed it as a “downer.”
What should be of some concern is that so many people feel they can’t make much of a difference as legislators or political appointees. Congress has surrendered so much authority to the unelected federal bureaucracy that many members believe they have become powerless to control or oversee it. Even presidents often find that the bureaucracy can easily ignore or circumvent instructions from the White House.
“What’s happening over and over again is that the serious people are saying, ‘I just don’t think it’s worth my time anymore,’” says Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s Face the Nation. “Which is an awful — and to me the worst — indictment you can make of our political system right now.”
Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, once quipped that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The former, he made clear, was more enjoyable than the latter. More and more people have decided they don’t need to worry about the main course of politics; they are going straight for the fun dessert. And, if you can attract the right amount of free media attention and don’t plan to win, you won’t even have to do the tedious fundraising to pay for your own cake.
What should worry us is that our nation’s looming fiscal and foreign-policy problems will require serious leadership very soon. I’m not sure the current environment is conducive to convincing that leadership to step forward.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.