A few of the mainstream usual suspects are already billing last night’s elections as some rebirth of the Republican party. While many lessons can be pulled from the results, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one. To put it plainly–Democrats need to run better candidates next time. Both Jon Corzine and Creigh Deeds had serious flaws as campaigners, attempted to undercut their opponent rather than provide voters a reason to vote for them on their own merits, inspired neither loyalty nor enthusiasm among Democratic voters, and the relatively low turnout of both contests reveals it. This might be a radical idea in American politics, but last year’s Presidential election showed that if a strong candidate with a compelling message runs then enthusiasm runs high and the results are tremendously successful, to say the least, at the ballot box. To wit, Barack Obama was the first candidate I’ve ever voted for without needing to restrain the impulse to hold my nose while engaged at the polls.
Out here in the grassroots liberal blogosphere, I see a lot of issue advocacy: sign this petition, promote this legislation, block this vote, speak out against this person, advance this cause, and so on. Rarely do I ever observe a means to draft worthy office seekers for upcoming races. I’m sure there are any number of qualified candidates out there who would be fantastic leaders and inspirational figures. Some complete unknown today could start at a low level and eventually work his or her way up to high elective office. I mention this in part because I know transformational visionaries are found on this site and others like it; I’ve read their essays and their comments, so I know they exist. However, so long as they resist a call to government service or refuse to throw their hat into the ring, we will be often forced to back the lesser of two evils and deal with the long-term consequences of bad policy and losing election nights.
Obama’s coattails might not have a massive reach beyond the immediate, but perhaps instead of relying on one impressive figure as a means to sweep less compelling candidates into office we ought to perceive of the President’s historic election as a different kind of bellwether, one that compels others into service. Perhaps it is its own kind of mandate, one that tells us in no uncertain terms that leadership is not a passive endeavor. Lest some people discount their own gifts, American history is full of successful politicians and leaders who were much more than the sum of their parts. Thomas Jefferson’s angelic, erudite prose shaped much of the backbone that formed the American experiment in democracy, but he was a sub-par public speaker at best and a frequently shy, underwhelming, socially awkward presence in person. Andrew Jackson lacked rhetorical polish to such an extent that his opponents often rendered him illiterate and barely qualified to hold the office, but his shortcomings in eloquence were more than countered by a force of will and leadership strength which insured that much of his stated agenda was implemented in the course of two terms in office. These are but two examples pulled from the past and I can invoke the names of many more if need be.
The reasons not to be involved, to be sure, are legion and indeed I cannot fault anyone for his or her reservations. Successful politics requires a certain kind of personality type and skill set, one that demands a thick skin, a compulsion to shift position for the sake of expediency, a constantly uneasy relationship with moneyed interests, an occasional need to head directly to the jugular of one’s opponents, and the nimble dexterity to say what one means in diplomatic language which is perfectly clear to all but not incendiary in tone. To be sure, some have neither the skill, nor the stomach for what can be an odd combination of narcissistic and debasing. Yet, as long as we keep saying, “I don’t know why ANYONE would be in that dirty business”, we will get exactly that which we do not need and we will continue to elect weak legislators. I sometimes think that perhaps the antidote would be found in teaching courses to our young adults entitled “Politics 101”, which would focus on the real job responsibilities required of those called to service more than a high-minded synopsis of the system and its multitudinous peculiarities.
Political junkies and sports fans both like to examine numerical data from almost every conceivable perspective. Sometimes statistics exist in both areas simply for the love of statistics. To be sure, for example, I know this morning that someone is taking yesterday’s results from one particular race, examining the raw data on a precinct-by-precinct basis and in so doing is coming up with some new fascinating means of analysis. What is produced is often either minutia or pleasantly inconsequential, but it does serve as food for thought, in any case. The same people who brought you such specialized stats as passing efficiency against teams in the NFC West or the number of interceptions thrown by a quarterback over the age of thirty-five are about to unleash their latest bit of creative color analysis and like you, I will read it with rapt attention. This is political science, after all, but in observing the particulars it might be more helpful to put a bit more effort behind that which cannot be defined in voting numbers and overall turnout. Before internalized polling, before debates, before party primaries, before party identification, before a ranking of important issues from most important to least important, before any early measurable indicator comes the individual decision: Do I run or not?
Oh sure, I know that it’s not as simple as will alone. The recent mayoral race in New York City reveals that one can spend $100 million of one’s personal fortune and still barely eke out a win. Being a national player requires friends in high places, powerful boosters, an experienced inner circle and staff, and the organizational structure to get the whole process off the ground. Even so, one must crawl before one walks, and almost everyone who isn’t independently wealthy has to toil in the relative obscurity of the minor leagues before getting called up to the big time. Those who do run need to ask themselves if they are called to serve purely to court the adoration of the crowds or whether they owe their devotion to some higher purpose. So long as we consider politics a thankless profession, the Barack Obamas of the world that are printed on the ballot sheet ready to be marked up or displayed before us on a computer screen will be few and far between. I for one would like to see a blogger or two in future making his or her first tentative steps towards changing the system on the inside. We’ll continue to work on the outside, if they’ll do their part from within.