It’s depressing. After seven years of covering innumerable elections and dealing with countless politicians, my prognosis for the political process, while not quite terminal, is bleak.
The folks who shouldn’t think of running on their best day always do—and frequently win—while those who would make good candidates either aren’t stupid enough to run or succumb to vast stupidity along the way.
Just to be clear, we’re only talking about those political positions which actually pay a decent salary. So we can immediately cross off anyone who serves on school, park and fire boards, aldermen, mayors and county board members from our list.
Because when it comes to those low- or no-paying ultra-local gigs, you get a mix of people who run on ego and those who actually are public-service minded. Just like a Forrest Gumpian box of chocolates, you close your eyes, vote and hope for the best.
But in regard to the higher offices, an Illinois state senator once said something so profound it’s proven itself true over and over again. He told me, “The problem with so many Springfield officials is, this is the best job they’ve ever had.”
And when you really start looking into their backgrounds, it’s amazing how many of them either ran multiple businesses into the ground or couldn’t even hold a job. Eighth District U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh is the poster child for this kind of dynamic.
With nowhere left to turn, these folks turn to politics, and with their livelihood at stake, they surround themselves with the right people and manage to run competent campaigns. Because self-interest is such a powerful force, they win more often than not.
The problem becomes, as the senator saw it, they’ll do whatever it takes to it takes to stay in office.
But then we have the do-gooders, who are even worse!
“But Jeff! How can the good guys possibly be worse than these nefarious career politicians?” Oh! Trust me, they are.
It starts with their abject failure to understand that politics ain’t a game for sissies, and then it crashes and burns with their massive egos. They’ve watched one too many Matt Damon movies where the hero prevails by his sheer virtue alone.
A good friend and political operative likes to tell me that whenever one of these idealistic folks decides to run for office, they immediately lose 30 percent of their brain cells. I’d actually put it at closer to half, because something’s gotta give in order to accommodate their exponentially expanding egos.
These Pollyanna altruists don’t understand how critical it is to build a team of the right people. They either choose advisers who don’t know bleep or come up with a group of yes men who only extol their greatness for trying to save the rest of us from ourselves.
Then, when the press ignores their pearls of wisdom and their career-politician opponent starts making mincemeat out of them, they start coming to me for advice—which is scary.
In fact, they’re so ineffective at campaigning, you actually start thinking: "If they can’t handle this part of the process, do I really want to send them to Springfield?" It gets to the point where you’d rather vote for the nefarious career politician because the NCP actually knows what's going on.
And the only thing worse than these do-gooders, who we now know are even worse than the do-badders, is the “citizen” candidates who often describe themselves as a “political outsiders” and typically belong to the Tea Party.
Please, Lord! Save us from all of them and their completely clueless ways. Sarah Palin is a perfect example of how horrifying this relatively recent phenomenon can be.
Thinking they’ll change everything by their mere legislative presence, they quickly tire of politics when they realize that reform doesn’t come without patience, persistence, and perspiration.
Citizen candidates love to say things like “I’m going to run government like a business,” but you can’t, because it isn’t a business. An effective legislator has to build consensus and, since CCs have never even attempted it, they have no idea how to begin. They simply believe that whoever screams the loudest wins.
So if the answer to our A, B or C question is actually D, “none of the above” then what is the answer to this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you do-don’t political conundrum?
1. We need to stop the relentless personal attacks on candidates so that decent people will actually want to run. The nuttier we get, the nuttier they get.
2. We need to only vote for folks who have actually accomplished something prior to running. That Springfield gig should never be the best job they ever had.
3. If it’s good enough for the president, then it’s good enough for every other elected office. Not only would term limits thrust a dagger directly in the heart of career politicians, but knowing their time is limited, they’ll be far less concerned with re-election and far more attentive to their constituents.
4. Job limits. No elected official should be allowed to work for a company that contributed to their campaign for five years after they leave office. This rule should also apply to lobbying.
5. Stop voting for “political outsiders.” They never accomplish anything. It might feel good to “throw the rascals out,” but term limits will certainly take care of that. Citizen journalists aren't taking off and neither are citizen politicians.
I understand I’ve gone on too long and these suggestions are far from perfect, but it sure beats the heck out of what we’ve got going now.