- - Thursday, January 8, 2015


The race for the presidency never ends. More than a few politicians lusting after a desk in the Oval Office begin planning years and even decades in advance for the day when they’ll get their shot. Some make it to Congress then realize voters want some evidence that they can run something. They give up their congressional career to seek their state’s governorship in the hope that this will bring them back to Washington and the White House. Other wannabes simply run around the country making speeches, raising money for others, signing letters and collecting chits they hope to cash in someday.

Politicians are an ambitious lot and though most may have gotten into the game to do good, almost all of them eventually decide that if they can do well, they will be able to do good later.

It’s difficult to say how many of them look in the mirror every morning while shaving or applying makeup and see a president peering back at them, but it would take more than one’s fingers and toes to count them. The universal problem they face is that only a couple from each generation will make it all the way. The rest will fail or give up the quest as they settle for a more reasonable, attainable goal, though they all know they could do a better job than whomever does get elected.

The problem voters face is that it is virtually impossible to predict who will or will not make a good president. There are clues, but those with stellar resumes don’t always live up to their promises. At the same time, some who the experts dismiss as mediocre at best punch way above their supposed weight — Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan spring to mind. Jimmy Carter, upon leaving the Georgia governorship and setting his sights on the White House, was reportedly asked what made him think he could win the presidency. His honest answer was, “Have you met those other guys?” The other contenders that year, had they been asked the same question and responded as honestly, would have come up with the same answer.

Ambition too often begets a willingness to do and say anything to get what one wants — a tendency which, combined with modern communications technology and the nature of the 21st-century American electorate, means that campaigns can get pretty dirty pretty fast. After all, there are two ways to get to the top: win an affirmative vote or benefit from the voters’ rejection of the other candidate or candidates. Most candidates hope for both, but in recent years they have spent far more trashing their opponents than seeking approval for their own beliefs.

The early evidence is that the 2016 cycle will be no different. On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s critics are already peddling new stories about her husband’s past misdeeds, and her operatives are out directing reporters to ways they can trash at least one of her potential primary opponents. The same thing is happening within the GOP camp as Jeb Bush’s opponents are spreading stories about his business ventures while he and his allies suggest that anyone with tea party support is just too extreme to be taken seriously. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are being dismissed by the supporters of other potential candidates as a tad kooky, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s detractors are tut-tutting about his dropping out of college decades ago.

None of this bodes well at a time when the nation should be given a choice between candidates with positive — if starkly different — visions of the future. No one expects the eventual nominees of the two parties to travel the country like Lincoln and Douglas, but it is reasonable to expect candidates to seek support based on their vision and proposals to deal with our domestic and foreign challenges rather than by simply taking down the competition.

Practitioners of the “politics of personal destruction” didn’t fare all that well in the recent elections as voters in many states opted for more solution-based candidates. Many incumbents who decided the road to re-election required running over and destroying their opponents are looking for work, and some challengers who were given little chance — like Larry Hogan in Maryland and Ed Gillespie in Virginia — won or came close running positive, focused, issue-oriented campaigns.

Perhaps that’s a not-so-hidden lesson the current crop of presidential wannabes would do well to learn.

David A. Keene is Opinion Editor of The Washington Times.

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