For years I've been saying it: the attributes that make a good candidate are pretty much the opposite of the characteristics that enable someone to govern. A good candidate needs monumental self-confidence, a thick hide, and a monomaniacal focus on getting her/himself into office. Everything else -- family, interests, and policies -- has to be secondary in campaign season. Not surprisingly, most people who master these requirements aren't terribly much use to the people who elect them once we put them in office. In office, we need quite different qualities from our leaders, including wide breadth of knowledge, curiosity, imagination and the ability to get people to work together.
We are seeing lots of the product of mastery of this system in Washington these days. The creatures of Rove get elected, but then all they can do is thrash around waving their newly won weapons, pillaging, and pandering to the theocrats who put them there. Meanwhile their Democratic foils cringe and try to slide by.
Refreshingly, someone with a lot more cred than I'll ever have has called out this systemic failure. The professional publication for political consultants is Campaigns and Elections. Ron Faucheux was a columnist for the magazine for 13 years, writing reams of perceptive copy on how to win elections. Now he is off to be a staffer for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and writes this critique of the culture of contemporary elections.
Lofty sentiments, but probably not something that any of us can easily remember in the heat of battle.
Faucheux is speaking about a professionalized politics practiced by the consultant class his magazine helped define. Grassroots groups come to politics from different premises. They are seldom comfortable or welcome in the world of the professionals. Their culture (ragged, sometimes emotional, participatory) and their values (usually egalitarian, both economically and socially) are antithetical to campaign discipline. Yet they can bring what money can't buy (and what democracy is supposed to be about): enthusiastic people.
When winning becomes "the only thing," elections become thoroughly hostile to participation by grassroots groups. Most ordinary people recoil from politics as a "fun" sport -- they'll engage because the process offers them a way to get something they need or to actualize something they believe in. They don't want a box score, they want to be inspired. They want that pesky "vision thing," something few politicians can offer on demand.