02 June 2011

Will's Axiom and the Presidential Paradox

George Will's latest column gets off on the wrong foot, noting prematurely that "Donald Trump's pathological political exhibitionism has ended," but his survey of the dropouts from the 2012 presidential campaign comes to an intriguing point when he gets to those dropouts toward whom he feels more sympathy. Noting the absence of Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour, Will observes that they were "aware of the axiom that anyone who will do what must be done to become president should not be allowed to be president."

Will is paraphrasing, so my purpose today isn't to go on a citation hunt. In fact, the columnist's axiom invokes an ancient American sentiment while possibly broadening its scope. In simplest terms, he's saying something many of the Founders would agree with: someone actively -- or publicly -- seeking political office is unworthy of it. According to the original ideal, it was up to the people to choose someone to fill an important and responsible office without prompting by anyone who openly wanted the office. The ideal public servant was unambitious for political power, but ready to assume its burdens, preferably with great reluctance, when the people summoned him. This ideal was almost always a dishonest one, in that there was almost always someone who wanted an office. In the earliest days, that person could hope to arrange things behind the scenes so that he could be "spontaneously" summoned to duty by the electorate without actually soliciting anyone's votes. The evolution of party politics made it impossible to avoid electioneering, but all parties for generations perpetuated the premise that candidates themselves were disinterested and above the fray. It would be up to party operatives to make speeches or otherwise electioneer on their candidates' behalf. It remained undignified for candidates themselves to "beg" for votes. But the gradual democratization of American politics increased demands from voters that candidates make their positions and beliefs known and clear. Candidates could refer voters to their party's platform, or they could refer them to previously published speeches. For a while this still seemed like too much information for traditionalists, especially if it increased the chances of what we now call a gaffe. Inevitably, however, candidates gave in to the temptation of the stump -- with the "front porch campaign" as a tentative first step. This article from 1997 details the process from Jacksonian times to the days of FDR, presenting the change not as a decline from the high Founding ideal but an inevitable response to democratization and partisanship.

So were the Founders wrong, and is Will wrong today? Will's axiom is fraught with implications; to "do what must be done to become president" in 2012 will involve much more than "begging" for votes. As anyone can readily document, it also involves begging for money. Is that also an inevitable and necessary consequence of democratization? It depends on what we mean by democracy, and what mean by elections. One can't help but infer from Will's axiom that there has to be a different approach to choosing a President. It may be true that "anyone who will do what must be done" to get elected doesn't deserve the job, but the Constitution says we still need a President. The Constitution also said that the choice of a President actually belonged to a handful of Electors who may not necessarily have been elected directly or democratically themselves. Can we make the choice more democratically without the electioneering that theoretically disqualifies a candidate from the office he or she seeks? It shouldn't be impossible. It can be up to the people to choose their leaders, but too many people today depend on being given a choice by political parties. The difference is significant. Millions of Americans today claim to be politically independent, but appear incapable of choosing representatives without the intercession or guidance of parties. They appear intimidated by an electoral system organized around parties and a perpetual escalation of electioneering -- yet in theory the power to choose representatives, or candidates, remains with the people, unbound by party lines. Will's axiom will no longer apply when the people change the rules that determine "what must be done," but whether Will himself understands this is a question for another time.


Anonymous said...

anyone who will do what must be done to become president should not be allowed to be president."

This is a bit confusing. If I'm understanding correctly, no one should ever be allowed to become president because anyone who has become president must have done what must be done to become president.

Samuel Wilson said...

If it doesn't make sense, then there's a hidden premise that needs to be questioned. In Will's case, the hidden premise is that whatever must be done actually disqualifies whoever does it. But what must be done is up to the American people to decide. If enough of us agree with Will, we ought to be able to change the rules so that Will's Axiom no longer applies.