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.

Be radical in style but conservative in substance. Anti-political voters are upset about the political system, but they are generally not upset about their own lives. Take a trip to the suburbs—most people there think that they are handling the parts of their lives that are within their control pretty well. Overwhelmingly, they are happy with their jobs, homes, cars, and families. They do not want you to start mucking these things up in the name of reform.

But they do want leaders who are iconoclastic in presentation and who seem likely to muck up the conventional process of politics. John McCain did not surge forward because of his innovative ideas about education and Social Security. He surged forward because his mode of campaigning showed that his character was strong enough to smash through the rot usually involved in running for President. He was open, brutally honest, and even imprudent, and in a thousand ways he demonstrated his independence from his profession, thus persuading many voters that he really might be able to change how that profession was practiced.

In thinking about McCain's following, you may find yourself tempted to fire all your political handlers and consultants and just be yourself. Before you do that, though, consider the possibility that beneath your media image and sound bites you may actually be rather dull. McCain's tactics worked for him because McCain is capable of independent, honest thought. But most politicians have trained themselves to think thoughts that are useful, not thoughts that are necessarily true. To help you project an image of independence and iconoclasm, you might need handlers—just handlers of a different sort.

Don't worry about respectable opinion. If you read the best newspapers and magazines in the country, you will get the impression that SUVs are decadent and McMansions are vulgar. But millions of Americans love SUVs and buy McMansions as soon as they can afford to. If you follow respectable opinion, you will misapprehend the tastes and priorities of the bulk of voters. More important, you will be following the cultural signals that molded all the other conventional, and failed, candidates before you. If you are going to run against the political elite, you should probably go for broke and run, in part, against the cultural elite, too.

Never display loathing. Anti-political voters are quick to loathe the system, but they are slow to loathe individual leaders, especially ones who seem basically decent. During the 1990s Republicans tried to get these voters to hate Bill Clinton, and failed. Today Democrats are trying to get them to hate Bush. That effort will fail too, for although these voters may dislike some of Bush's policies, there is no evidence that they are offended by Bush himself. People who hate come across as more unattractive than the targets of their hatred.

This fact poses a dilemma for Democrats in particular. The Democratic Party is in a highly emotional state, which puts it starkly at odds with the detachment of anti-political voters. Most engaged liberals are enraged by the policies and behavior of the Republicans. Many congressional Democrats believe that the people leading the Republican Party do not care about the common good but just want to grab what they can for themselves. They regard leading Republicans as liars, thugs, and worse. And they cannot restrain their fury.

But their fury is exactly the sort of emotion that will repel anti-political voters, who will see it not as righteous indignation but as shrill partisanship. It is too political, too fevered, too contentious. These voters have not been reading and rereading articles about the many Republican outrages, and they may well wonder about the mental stability of Democrats who get themselves so worked up over seemingly so little.

Try a little bipartisanship. During the 2000 election campaign Bush declared, "I'm a uniter, not a divider." He vowed to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Has there ever been a campaign promise so dramatically unfulfilled?

The central problem plaguing politics is mindless team spirit. The main complaint anti-political voters have against the system is that apparently kind and intelligent people come to Washington and immediately begin acting like idiots. They make crude partisan statements that only the most lemminglike party hacks could possibly accept at face value. They hold scripted press conferences at which they charge the other side with dastardly betrayals of the national interest. They never seem to step back from the party line and consider problems afresh. In no other profession do people behave this way, even though most professions are at least as competitive as politics.

The situation has gotten so bad that if a presidential candidate today were to show even the slightest sign of a genuine bipartisan spirit, voters would be beside themselves with joy and relief. The media would gush. The candidate would be heralded as the new Abraham Lincoln.

This is one area in which the Democrats have a structural advantage over the Republicans. John McCain did try to project a bipartisan spirit in 2000, but he was crushed by the Republican establishment. The Democratic establishment is not yet as good at crushing insurgencies, even though it is becoming more cohesive and viciously partisan by the day. An independent and semi-bipartisan candidate might still be able to win the Democratic nomination.

In his book The Vanishing Voter (2002) the political scientist Thomas Patterson wrote, "Since the 1960s the number of partisans with an awareness of both parties has declined by 25 percent while the number of independents with thoughts about neither party has nearly doubled." You need to keep these statistics in mind, right from the start of the primary season.

And you need to face the truth: even if you win the nomination, you are almost certainly going to lose the election. History teaches us that you are likely to exit the race bloodied, battered, humiliated, and broke. You will crawl back to Congress with your lifelong dreams of being President in tatters.

So you might as well throw the Hail Mary pass. You might as well try something new and different. After all, you have nothing to lose.