Breaking: All Politicians Are Ambitious

Imagine you were on a corporate board, interviewing candidates for the vacant CEO position, and you asked one, "Why do you want to run this company?" He replies, "It isn't so much that I want to run the company; I have no feelings about actually doing the job. You should hire me because I alone can save you from disaster. It's really almost an act of charity on my part." You'd probably think, "What an arrogant jerk. Next?"

Yet that's how just about everyone who runs for president is supposed to describe their desire for the job. They have to profess to having no personal ambition whatsoever, and say they hadn't really thought about the presidency until they realized that either 1) things in America had gotten so bad that they had to step in and save her; or 2) even though things are going OK now, the challenges the country faces in the future are so profound that they simply had to serve.

This is, of course, just one of the many platefuls of bull we eat up from our politicians. But I find it particularly galling, since not only are politicians as a species ambitious by nature, but to even contemplate running for the White House you have to be absolutely brimming with ambition, even more so than your colleagues. And there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. Ambition can produce good and bad. Franklin Roosevelt's ambition gave us the New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson's ambition gave us the Great Society, both of which were good things. George W. Bush's ambition gave us the war in Iraq, which wasn't so good.

The point is, ambition in politicians is a given, and it's absurd for them to deny it and absurd for us to believe their denials. I bring this up because of a review of the Netflix documentary Mitt at Talking Points Memo, in which Sahil Kapur writes, "The movie inadvertently bolsters one of the most devastating critiques of Romney's candidacy from Republican and Democratic opponents: that there wasn't much conviction driving him during the campaign other than his belief that he would be a great president. One could interpret this lack of ideological passion as evidence of open-mindedness and pragmatism, but many voters interpreted it as opportunistic shape-shifting."

Nothing that Kapur says is false in terms of how people read Romney's ambition, but I have to ask why we assume there is something morally superior about the "conviction politician" like Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, and something morally inferior about the guy who just thinks he'd like to be president and would do the job well. No matter how firm their ideology, conviction politicians are just as ambitious as people like Romney or Bill Clinton who knew they would one day run for president from the time they got to middle school.

What happens then is that the less ideological candidate, who can't say "I'm running for president to defeat the socialist menace that lurks in every free school lunch," has to convince us that he's running because of some equally powerful impulse that exists outside of his own desires. So he presents himself as something like a firefighter. He doesn't want the glory, he doesn't want the hug from the grateful homeowner, the nation is on fire and he has no choice but to douse the flames with his brilliant leadership.

It's always baloney, no matter who it comes from. Think about it this way: what do you think might convince a politician not to run for president? All the reasons anyone every comes up with come down to one consideration: "I might not win." Maybe potential rivals in the primary or general election are too strong, or maybe the condition of the economy would make it hard for his party to prevail, or maybe he decides there's just no way he can keep his youthful experimentation with Satanism a secret. But nobody ever decided not to run because they realized the country just didn't need them that badly.

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