Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 11: Why We Want Petraeus to Run for President—and Why He Won't


When word hit the wires late last week that Army Gen. David Petraeus had agreed to speak at St. Anselm college on March 24, the political punditocracy (rather predictably) flipped out. James Joyner of Outside the Beltway led with the big question: "Presidential Campaign Underway?" The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder noted that while Petraeus "has said he's not interested, in public," neither "do most would-be candidates at this stage." And Salon declared that "giving this speech ... can only mean one thing: He’s looking to run."

The reason this hyperbolic response was so predictable is that St. Anselm is located in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first presidential primaries--and no one, according to the chattering classes, visits the Granite State at any point prior to a presidential election unless he or she harbors a burning desire to become leader of the free world. 

Nevermind that Petraeus owns a small boathouse on Lake Kolelemook inSpringfield, N.H., or that he is registered to vote there. And nevermind that he's been pretty clear about his ambitions—or lack thereof. "I've said 'no' about as many different ways as I possibly could," he told an audience at Georgetown Law Center in January. "And I truly mean it. I am Shermanesque in my response to those particular questions." According to the press, Petraeus is visiting New Hampshire, ergo, Petraeus wants to be president. For my media colleagues, it's as simple as that.

Personally, I think speculating about Petraeus's plans is pointless. My hunch is that while he's happy to fan the flames from time to time,deep down he's merely trying to maintain a high profile while he anglesfor a gig he really wants, like chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or high-paid motivational speaker. But again, that's just a guess. What's more interesting to me is the fact that we're speculating about Petraeus at all. Why, I'm wondering, do we continue to clamor for military men to serve as president—even when they show little interestin the job?

Once upon a time, being a successful warrior was enough to qualify someone for the presidency. Four generals have moved directly from the field to the White House (George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower), and seven others (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison) have cited their military qualifications when applying for the job. Outside of politics, the only way to lead an organization that even remotely resembles a country is by running a business or going to war, so it's no wonder that for centuries American voters were drawn to candidates who'd proven their mettle on the battlefield. You want a strong, decisive president? Pick a strong, decisive general. Or so the thinking went.

After the fractious conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, however, military macho men no longer had a free pass. Alexander Haig's 1988 presidential bid fizzled, and vice presidential candidates James Stockdale and Curtis LeMay did little to boost their third-party running mates. But while the military as a whole declined in popularity, a certain kind of military leader—reserved, technocratic, seemingly nonpartisan—actually saw his political standing rise. Both Colin Powell (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War) and Wesley Clark (supreme allied commander, Europe, of NATO during the war in Kosovo) have in recent years enjoyed serious presidential boomlets fueled in part by what they've accomplished on the battlefield and in part by how they seem to conduct themselves when the fighting stops. The Princeton-educated Petraeus, widely credited with righting the botched Iraq War effort, fits a similar "soldier-scholar" mold.

Generals like Powell, Clark, and Petraeus are appealing largely because they seem to operate outside of the vortex of our divisive post-Vietnam politics. They appear to be pragmatists with the strategic vision and tactical expertise to solve thorny 21st-century problems rather than ideologues who care more about winning elections than getting something done. And because they've spent most of their careers refusing to comment on controversial public-policy issues—health-care reform, abortion, torture, electronic surveillance—it's easy to imagine that they share our views, whatever those views may be. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, "these high-level military officers... get to be famous media celebrities without engaging in that sort of annoying political cut-and-thrust." That's why we like to imagine them as candidates.

The problem, of course, is that the actual process of campaigning inevitably forces respected generals to morph into typical politicians. (See "Clark, Wesley: disastrous 2004 presidential bid of.") Which is why I think the very thing that would make Petraeus a compelling candidate—that is, the hysterical partisanship of American politics circa 2010—is the same thing that would prevent him from running for president in the first place.

Sure, as a self-described "Rockefeller Republican," "someone of Petraeus’ unassailable stature" might be able to "force mainstream Republicans back to the political center" by "debat[ing] the ins and outs of health care policy without being labeled asocialist," "shut[ting] down military tribunals and expand[ing] diplomacywithout being called an Al Qaeda sympathist," and "discuss[ing] the finer points of social policy without being shouted down as a pinko libertine," as Mother Jones's Adam Weinsten recently argued.

But a Petraeus presidential run is far more likely to wind up with the candidate diminished on the left, rejected on the right, and still nowhere near the White House after halfheartedly embracing socially conservative dogma in order to compete in the GOP nominating contests. In the end, it's difficult to imagine Petraeus, one of the most admired men in the country, risking his reputation for a fourth place finish in Iowa—as much as we might want him to.