Washington Watch: Why are they running?

Why do people run for president? Of course, the easy answer is the one JFK gave and Ted couldn’t think of.

June 17, 2015 22:07
4 minute read.
Mike Huckabee

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee addresses supporters as he formallly launches his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event in Hope, Arkansas May 5, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In 1960 John F. Kennedy was asked why he was running for president. “Because that’s where the power is,” he answered. When his kid brother Ted was asked the same question nearly 20 years later, he couldn’t think of an answer. It was downhill from there for his presidential ambitions.

The presidency of the United States of America is the most powerful and prestigious job in the world. The pay may not be as good as that of a hedge fund manager, casino mogul or movie star, but the perks are awesome: Air Force One for starters, then there are the four million-plus federal employees and soldiers who work for you.

On the other hand, you live in a fish bowl and need full-time bodyguards because someone is always gunning for you in one manner of speaking of another. You get a vice president whose purpose is to wait for you to die.

If the job is so good, why doesn’t it attract a better quality of candidate? Let’s face it; the current crowd is not America’s finest. Far from it. We could do a lot better, but with the withering attacks from all directions – not just by the opposition but also from a 24/7 media cycle with an insatiable appetite for scandal and controversy – it’s not hard to understand why better public figures choose not to run.

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Yet there’s no shortage of candidates, even if they’re not the best and may not possess the experience, intelligence and integrity to be a potentially great president.

Richard Nixon once nominated a clearly unqualified justice for the Supreme Court, G. Harrold Carswell, and when criticism of the president’s choice grew, Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska came to his defense; mediocrity deserved representation as well, he insisted. Even Republican loyalists weren’t buying.

Each of this year’s wannabees may hope that lightning will strike and land him or her in the White House, but in sane and sober moments they know better.

Most know they haven’t got a chance, but they still go for it. They spend endless hours begging for money and kissing the fingers and other body parts of rich people who think their bank balances qualify them to give advice about how to run the country.

Why do they do it? Of course, the easy answer is the one JFK gave and Ted couldn’t think of.

But there’s more to it. Here are some other reasons: Consolation prize – hoping your unsuccessful candidacy gets you nominated for Veep or for a cabinet post, and a platform to run again in four or eight years.

Make history – be the first Jew, the first woman, the first Hispanic, the first gay president.

Looking ahead – running once can lay the groundwork for another try (Ronald Reagan did it in 1976; John McCain in 2000).

Fame – A presidential run, even a hopelessly unsuccessful one, is a chance to become a household name. You have a lot (but never enough) of other people’s money to get you news interviews, town hall meetings, participation in national debates and your name painted on the side of an RV or even a plane.

A pulpit – you can draw attention to your issues even if you know lightning won’t strike (e.g., Bernie Sanders knows he can’t win but he wants to push Hillary Clintin to a more progressive position; religious crusaders Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee hope to do the same on the Republican side).

Get rich – failed presidential bids can lead to lucrative speech gigs, jobs as cable networks commentators or high-paying corporate posts.

Become a lobbyist – trade on your contacts, access, publicity and notoriety by becoming a lobbyist with big paychecks based more on your contacts and your name than on your political skills.

Get a book deal – hire a ghostwriter while some people still remember your name, and reveal and embellish all your stories from the campaign and the rest of your life. It may not pay a bundle, but who doesn’t like having their name on the title page of a book? Go back to Congress – or run for Congress if you haven’t already and capitalize on your semi-household name that is able to garner more public attention from your colleagues and translate that into influence in the institution.

Ego – This may be the most compelling reason of all, especially for repeat political offenders. Running for president is the greatest ego trip imaginable, right up there with rock stars and reality show idols; it takes a voracious ego to think you’re qualified to do the job in the first place and thick skin if you’re willing to suffer the slings and arrows hurled at you from all directions.

But you’re compensated by having a cadre of sycophants surrounding you and making sure you get lots of media attention everywhere.

Sex – even the promise of and proximity to power is an aphrodisiac.

Just ask Henry Kissinger.

Every candidate claims to be in the race to serve the nation, or to advance key values, and there’s no doubt that’s often part of the political equation. But running for president has numerous other temptations – and that may explain why the process does not attract the kind of sober, intelligent, levelheaded candidates our nation so desperately needs.

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