How to Run for President

A primer for the Democratic candidates from Congress, who face daunting historical odds

During the past four decades forty-nine sitting members of Congress have run for President. All of them lost.

Some of the failed candidates added sparkle to the race (Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Mo Udall, Eugene McCarthy, Barry Goldwater). Others seemed, at least at the time, plausible and serious (Ed Muskie, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Birch Bayh). Some exceeded expectations (John Anderson, Eugene McCarthy, John McCain). Others underperformed (Phil Gramm, John Glenn, Alan Cranston). In some cases it's hard to imagine what they were thinking when they decided to run (Orrin Hatch, Fritz Hollings, Paul Simon, Fred Harris, Phil Crane).

But the point is, they all lost: forty-nine up, forty-nine down.

One might think that this rather compelling historical record would have made some impact. One might think that a major political party would be sure to include lots of non-congresspersons in its roster of presidential hopefuls. One might think that those members of Congress who run for President would understand that they are launching an undertaking that is extremely unlikely to succeed, and that they had better do something highly unorthodox to improve their chances.

Wrong on all counts. This year the Democratic establishment is offering up as candidates at least seven current or former members of Congress: John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun. And, true to form, this field is generating about as much excitement as Dole, Cranston, Hatch, Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, Walter Mondale, and Tom Harkin did in campaigns past. The only candidate sparking any passion is the one non-member of Congress in the race: Howard Dean, of Vermont.

So let me take the seven current candidates from Congress aside and offer some advice.

Your basic problem is that during the years you've been in Congress, you have been living in Plato's cave. You have not been responding to reality; you have been responding to a shadow of reality in the form of committee hearings, conversations with lobbyists, and town-hall meetings. The overwhelming majority of people you have spoken with are heavily invested in politics. Most Americans, including most voting Americans, are not.

The people you need to woo are not the political junkies—the folks who watch political talk shows and already know who you are. Nor are they the growing numbers of apathetic Americans who are disengaged from public life and don't even bother to show up at the polls. The people you need to woo are the anti-political voters. These people are concerned with the state of the nation but cynical; they are interested in politics but disgusted by the way it is currently practiced. They don't see why there has to be so much conflict, so many scripted attacks, so much wasted energy.

They long for leaders who are not cast in the usual political mold, and who therefore seem capable of changing the tenor of American politics. In past elections, both national and local, these voters have swooned over such unconventional possibilities as Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Colin Powell, and John McCain. And they are ready to swoon over you—but you've got to get out of your cave.

Specifically, here is what you need to do:

Pretend that you are not obsessed with politics. One of the most telling moments in recent political life occurred during a primary debate in the 2000 presidential-election campaign, when George W. Bush was asked to name his favorite political philosopher. He answered, "Jesus Christ."

With that answer Bush signaled that he wasn't inclined to name a political philosopher, at least as that term is conventionally understood. He was thus demonstrating that even though he was running for President, he was not fundamentally a political creature. He was saying, "Look, I'm normal. Like you."

In sending that message Bush connected with the many voters who do not believe that politics breeds good character. They want leaders whose character developed in some arena outside politics—the military, church, business, sports—and who can bring their nonpolitical virtues into government.

Don't think linearly. Your life so far has been a progression. You started small and local and gradually extended your reach. You climbed the political ladder and eventually got elected to Congress. Once there, you ascended by virtue of seniority and visibility.

This does not impress the antipolitical voter. For example, look at what is happening to California's governor, Gray Davis, who is in danger of being recalled by voters. It has been said that the government of France is a dictatorship interrupted by riots. The government of California is apathy interrupted by petitions. Anti-political voters go for long periods without paying any attention to what happens in Sacramento. Then one day the voters look up and realize that they are unhappy. They decide that the politicians have been screwing up, and that they want wholesale change. So they support recall petitions and radical ballot measures (remember Proposition 13?) that telegraph their disgust and can dramatically alter the political landscape.

In the age of the anti-political voter politics is not steady. It's spasmodic. To have a prayer of winning, you have to go with the spasms. Your campaign cannot just flow naturally from your political past. You can't run on the basis of your accomplishments as a legislator. You have to emerge from the husk of your past self. You have to declare that up until now you have been living a false life within a rotten system, but you have seen the light—and you will combine your new insight with your old insider's knowledge and forge a sword of reform.

Presented by

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent since 2001, has recently agreed to write a twice-weekly op-ed column for The New York Times.

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