Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No more A students, Part 2

As I was saying yesterday, I don't know much about Ohio politics and I haven't followed Sherrod Brown's career. On paper, he looks like a good candidate.

But on paper they all look like good candidates.

How does he look on televsion? In front of a crowd at the union hall? Facing down a gaggle of reporters? Debating an opponent? Walking across his own front yard to pick up after the dog?

On paper, I like him.

But on paper, he not only looks like a good candidate, he looks like all the other candidates the Democrats tend to nominate for higher office.

An A student, an Ivy League grad, a career spent in politics. At least he's not a lawyer.

At first glance, it's confounding how closely their resumes track. Think about it though. These are among America's best and brightest and there are paths laid out from high school for our best and brightest, whatever their field and their particular talent. Watching from above as they make their way along those paths, hitting all the right milestones at all the right times, they do look alike, as if they were all built out of the same kit by the elders in their professions who designed them to be perfect replacements for themselves. And this is in fact the case. It's why fields of study, professions, industries, and the various arts stagnate and decline until someone who didn't follow the path comes along and changes the way everybody does things.

When the United States got itself up and running, there was no path for young politicians to follow. When the path was laid out it had lots of sidetracks and there were many parallel roads. And there weren't any set rules of the road---there was no rigorous code of behavior. Nowdays, after a certain point along the road young travellers have learned how they are expected to comport themselves. They shape their behavior and their manners, the way they dress, their habits of speech, and even the way they think accordingly. Pretty soon it's not just that they look abstractly alike from a distance; up close they look alike as much as clothes and manners and expression can make people look alike---there are uniforms, not only to be worn, but to be assumed as habits of mind and conduct of body---and they act and sound alike too.

Consequently, they are dull to outsiders who don't know the rules or care. Consequently, it's the eccentrics among them we who are not in their fields like and admire. And consequently, in politics, it's not surprising that the politicians that are most interesting to us are the ones who didn't follow the path and, consequently, those are the kinds we make President.

Or at least we make the kinds we think didn't follow the path President.

Leaving aside Gerald Ford, of the 9 elected Presidents since FDR, who followed the path beautifully, only John Kennedy and the first George Bush appear to have walked the approved course from beginning to end.

The rest, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Dubya, all appear to have arrived at the top by blazing their own trails.

Clinton and Dubya, however, don't really belong on the list. They are there in disguise.

Bill Clinton's biography is interesting because until he was in college he didn't appear to be on the path. That's because he was surrounded by a lot of colorful and dysfunctional characters and grew up in a small town and we think of small towns as eccentric and authentic and the people who come from them as eccentric and authentic by default. Clinton's teachers knew he was on the path, other successful grown ups in his life knew it, and they all helped guide him along it. By the time he reached Georgetown he was steadily on course. Naturally, however, when he ran for President he emphasized the first 16 or so years of his life at the expense of the next 30.

George Bush's biography is interesting because of how many times he left the path either by falling off it or wandering off or storming off in a fit of bad temper and it's a cautionary tale because of how every time he decided to come back he insisted on coming back at the point where he'd have been if he'd hadn't left. He was the hare who thought he ought to be rewarded as if he'd been the tortoise, and fortunately for him, and unfortunately for the country, the judges were always willing to bend the rules for him.

Somehow this career as a privileged screw-up has won him a reputation as an authentic and self-made man.

But Truman the shopkeeper, Ike the solider, Johnson and Nixon the self-made men, Carter the peanut farmer and engineer, and Reagan the actor are more alike than appears on the surface. They were all smart, ambitious, hardworking, and steady of purpose. Not an Ivy Leaguer in the group, not one of them was to the manner born. They were all eccentrics compared to the other politicians around them. They talked funny and they looked funny, even Reagan. But although they didn't follow the approved path, they followed either parallel paths or, in the case of Reagan and Eisenhower, the right paths in their non-political careers.

To the people who were looking, at any point in their early careers these were all young men who showed the right qualities of intelligence, drive, adaptability, leadership, and competence in a combination that said, "Watch this kid. Put your money on him."

Dubya is unique among the last 10 Presidents---counting Gerald Ford now---heck, among our last 16, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, who interestingly was born on the path yet insisted on making his own way anyway, for never in his whole life showed any of these qualities---not that anyone except his mother and Karl Rove ever saw, at least.

What this means, I think, is that it ought to be possible to take a good look around and find men and women in their 20s and 30s and even in their early 40s who aren't on the approved path but who have shown those qualities and who would make good candidates for public office.

Not being privy to Chuck Schumer's thinking, and not knowing anyone who is, I can't tell if Schumer and other Democratic leaders who are out recruiting not just for Senatorial candidates but for candidates for state legislature, town council, city hall, Congress, and the White House are looking along those other paths.

My sense is that they're not.

I don't want to discriminate against the Sherrod Browns of the world whose only fault is that they have been good at what they're doing from an early age.

I want to widen and deepen the talent pool.

I don't want to lose any Sherrod Browns. I want to recruit more Paul Hacketts.

When I heard that Chuck Schumer had decided to dump his second choice, Hackett, and go back to his first choice, Brown, I wasn't just disappointed because I like Hackett.

I was disappointed because I looked at Brown's resume and thought, Oh no, another Senator.

Which you'd think is what you'd want for the job of Senator.

But the Democrats already have 44 of those, and it's not been working out all that great for us, has it?

Why I need an editor update # 1: Ezra Klein points out in his comment that there's a serious failure of thought behind the last sentence of this post. Ezra writes, "Having 44 [typical Democratic Senators] may not be working out too well, but having 55 would be just fine." Sure would, and I'd be thrilled if we had a Senate majority made up of 55 Sherrod Brown clones. But when I wrote that I was being lazy and looking for a quick and easy way to finish off the post. What I hoped I was implying, and what I should have taken the trouble to say, is that having all those Democratic Senators all seeming to come from the same mold has contributed to an image problem for the Party---we're the party of pointy-headed policy wonks, snooty intellectual types, timid careerists and elitists---and that image problem is part of what the Democrats have to overcome to get those 11 extra Senators.


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