Politics & Policy

In Praise of Career Politicians

(Rick Becker-leckrone/Dreamstime)
The problem with American politics is not those who possess experience of elected office, but our own decadent complacency.

If you’re a resident of the United States in possession of a television, you’ve probably been subjected to more campaign ads than you care to recall. I had occasion to spend a good deal of the 2018 election cycle in Tennessee, where in most races the Republican primary might as well be the general election. I noticed a common denominator there among the campaigns of conservative candidates, which I’ve since learned is endemic to GOP races across the country. One of the last TV ads that Bill Lee ran during the primary portion of his successful campaign for governor was called “Three Politicians.”

“Why are three politicians attacking me?” Lee asks at the beginning of the spot as he gazes through the camera into the living-rooms of Tennesseans, feigning disbelief at the notion that politicians might criticize their electoral rivals. After assuring the viewer that he has sufficiently abased himself before the all-holy ayatollah of his party, Donald Trump, he supplies the electorate with the answer to his question: “I’m the only conservative outsider in a field of politicians.”

The hysteria with which such loathing of career politicians has seized the Republican Party is something to behold. In almost every electoral race across the United States, there is a fierce contest between Republican candidates to determine who can boast of the least acquaintance with electoral politics and who can demonstrate the greatest ignorance of the office they seek to hold. Conservatives across the land are constantly in search of candidates who profess to projectile vomit at the very thought of politics, and then recoil in disgust and disappointment when these same candidates turn out to be not very good . . . politicians. To quote C. S. Lewis, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Lest the reader fall under the impression that I am generalizing from the particular to an altogether untenable degree, I will offer just a few more examples of this phenomenon. If these fail to convince, I would simply encourage the skeptic to watch an hour’s worth of Republican campaign commercials on television, provided he or she has a high threshold for masochism.

In one of his campaign ads during the last election cycle, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri stands in his kitchen clad in plaid and blue jeans with an arm around his wife. After mouthing off about the cocktail of cultural resentments that fuels his own particular brand of right-wing populism, he laments that “the D.C. career crowd just keeps on doin’ the same old thing.”

You don’t even need to watch any ads on the YouTube channel for Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler’s campaign to get a similar message — the descriptive blurb at the top of the channel reads “Kelly Loeffler is a conservative businesswoman and political outsider appointed by Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson in the United States Senate.” But in case that left you with any doubt about what Loeffler thinks of “insiders,” there is a recent attack ad that is simply titled, “A Typical Career Politician.”

Even a notable voice of reason in the U.S. Senate felt the need to resort to this kind of campaigning in 2014, when he first sought high office. One of Ben Sasse’s initial T.V. spots was called, simply, “The Outsider.” Sasse stands alone in the ad amid the cornfields of Nebraska decrying the fact that “the first priority of every politician is to keep their own job” and warning Nebraskans that “if you think an establishment insider is going to fix [Washington], then I’m not your guy.”

It should be noted that the prevalence of this disdain for professional politicians cannot always be laid at the door of the candidates themselves. Posing as a renegade interloper from beyond the pale of experienced statecraft has been a feature of American politics since the 1790s. The Founders themselves were caught off-guard by this development as they watched it metastasize into an intractable feature of the Republic during its infancy. Perhaps owing to the revolutionary origins of their country, Americans have always been more comfortable playing the role of the insurgent than that of the incumbent. They who wish to represent the nation back to its citizens are often required by the people to take up this mantle of the outsider even when they are ill-suited to it.

This is true even in pop culture. The quintessential British literary figure is Sherlock Holmes — the self-possessed man of irrepressible cerebral dexterity who always appears to be in perfect control of the situation, lecturing his deputy on the finer points of elementary logic in the Queen’s own English as he goes about his business with aristocratic ease. America’s fictional avatar is Jay Gatsby — the sharp-elbowed nobody who infiltrates Manhattan society from without and rises on the tide of his own capacity for self-reinvention to conquer a world built to exclude him.

The American character is not, then, well-disposed toward long-serving magistrates who spend the better part of their lives wielding the coercive power of the state over their neighbors. The benefits that accrue to a people inculcated with this suspicion are enormous, but it is not without its setbacks. Competent legislators are forced to distance themselves as far as possible from the office they seek. Because political officeholders are often despised in this country and are yet chosen by popular acclamation, even the best aspiring politicians must rhetorically repudiate their own would-be profession in order to have a chance of working in it. The upshot of this democratic paradox is that it’s difficult at the superficial level to separate the grifters from those who are forced to play the grifters’ game in order to beat them. Career politicians are at a huge disadvantage from the get-go when this is the game being played at the ballot-box, and many competent statesmen are turned out by their voters in favor of clodhopping charlatan as a result.

Thinking of this phenomenon, I made a list yesterday of civil magistrates I can think of who could reasonably be characterized as career politicians. All of these people spent much, if not most, of their adult lives in elected office:

William Pitt the Younger, appointed prime minister by the king of England at the age of 24; William Wilberforce, elected to Parliament at the age of 21; Edmund Burke; William Gladstone; Benjamin Disraeli; Winston Churchill; Margaret Thatcher; Tony Blair; George Washington, often cited as an example to the contrary but in fact elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in his 20s; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; Abraham Lincoln; Calvin Coolidge; both Roosevelts; John F. Kennedy; Richard Nixon; and Bill Clinton.

Whatever one thinks of these politicians, it cannot be denied that they were all extraordinarily effective in achieving their policy aims. Given that there appears to be a correlation between longevity in politics and legislative ability, can causation be established? I think so. There are very few salutary policy achievements credited to the figures listed above that cannot in some way be partially accounted for by referring to their prior political experience.

“I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes,” was Winston Churchill’s judgment when he reflected upon his long political career. The worst of these mistakes came during the First World War, when he orchestrated the disastrous Dardanelles campaign that led to the cataclysmic slaughter of British forces at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. From then on, Churchill always deferred to his generals on matters of military strategy. That was the hard-won lesson that the Last Lion learned from being in the center of the political arena in 1915.

In his fantastic history of World War II, The Storm of War, Andrew Roberts observes that the same cannot be said of Adolf Hitler. Hitler, who went almost straight from street thug to dictator at breakneck speed, consistently ignored and overruled the advice of his generals at crucial turning points during the war. Happily for the human race, the career politicians defeated the “outsider” in the conflict of 1939–1945.

Thomas Jefferson had had a lot of experience losing in the political arena by the time he won the presidency in 1800. He had been constantly frustrated in the Virginia House of Burgesses — his repeated attempts to ban slavery in the Old Dominion were always rejected by fellow legislators — and he’d been passed over for the presidency in favor of John Adams in 1796. The magnanimity feigned by President Jefferson after the election of 1800 did not please the purists in his own party and would likely have gotten him “primaried” at the next election in today’s political environment. Nevertheless, the merit that he clearly saw in rhetorically diffusing political tensions must be attributed at least in part to the many memories of electoral and legislative failure he had himself, and to the hard-won conviction that the loser’s consent is both the most fragile and most essential building block of a free society.

Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, did not refine his thoughts about how best to end slavery by trying law cases in Springfield but by running for office throughout his adult life and debating Stephen Douglas on the stump. He had a large hand in the emerging anti-slavery coalition in the 1850s, working to keep it from collapsing under the weight of either wide-eyed radicalism or indifference. It might surprise some Americans to learn that Lincoln’s strategic brilliance was not merely discovered, fully formed, on the day of his inauguration in 1861. He had already been honing his political genius for some time before then.

I’ll spare you further examples here; if you want more, just pick up a biography of almost any great statesman or woman and you will find them.

Consider, too, the single most effective U.S. senator. He is a 36-year veteran of the upper chamber, the scourge and bane of progressive judicial activism in all its many guises, and, if nitwits are to be believed, “the Swamp” incarnate: Cocaine Mitch McConnell. Is it any wonder that the most adept legislator in American politics knows the inner workings of the Federal government and all its foibles like the back of his hand?


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