It is, more politicians are saying, an exercise in craziness that appeals only to the unbalanced. As Mitch Daniels, the latest to recoil at the prospect of running for president, put it: “What sane person would like to?”
Increasingly, we are told, White House aspirants are horrified by the grueling pace, the relentless attacks, the withering scrutiny, the notion of dragging their families into a slimy swamp that will taint them forever. My response: stop the whining.
First, the presidency is a pretty cool job. You get a nice mansion with backyard, a bowling alley, a chef, your own helicopter, and an impressive pile of nuclear weapons. No one forced these folks to stir up presidential speculation. The agonizing is getting old.
Second, as nutty and nightmarish as the process may be, it’s not an irrational way to pick a president. The pressures of running, defining a message, mastering the issues, and fending off attacks is a rough proxy for managing the burdens of the Oval Office. If a candidate can’t galvanize supporters during a campaign, how can he or she rally the country during a Wall Street meltdown or a war? “In a classic mythological sense,” says former Joe Biden aide Ron Klain, “it tests the candidate in every respect—physically, mentally, emotionally. It weeds people out.”
Donald Trump loudly proclaimed he was serious this time, right until the day he had to re-up with Celebrity Apprentice—for a payday worth up to $60 million. “It was very hard because I was doing so well in terms of the polls,” Trump tells me. “Do you give up a top show on television with a tremendous amount of money for the privilege of running for a year and a half?” Well, some people might.
Trump insists he wasn’t deterred by the negative coverage: “I expected a lot of scrutiny. My whole life I’ve been getting scrutiny.” Besides, says Trump, he always has the “option” of running “at a later date”—an obvious reference to mounting an independent bid next year.
Still, the publicity payoff is enormous for these toe-in-the-water types. The press eagerly plays along, hyping the Hamlet act for sheer entertainment, while the pretenders boost their book sales or their profile without the inconvenience of actually running—let alone actually governing. Now that Sarah Palin is launching an East Coast bus tour, the speculation machine is revving up again.
What about public service as a lofty calling? Mike Huckabee chose his $500,000 Fox News salary over a second White House bid, more than doubling his ratings for the announcement, only to see the numbers plummet the next week, after pulling the plug. Choosing a weekend cable show reaching fewer than a million viewers over the chance to be commander in chief? Huckabee says he sought divine guidance.
I understand the family concerns. Daniels didn’t want his wife, Cheri, hounded about why she divorced him and left their children in the 1990s, marrying another man before she remarried the Indiana governor. Haley Barbour passed up the race in part at his wife’s urging. But really, what’s gotten into these spouses? They married practicing politicians, reaped the status rewards and then, when the White House beckoned, the prospect wilted their delicate sensibilities? Or are the husbands using them as convenient camouflage to duck races they can’t stomach or can’t win?
Each prospective candidate must ponder: are the chances I’ll make a fool of myself and expose my messy marital history outweighed by whatever shot I have at the nomination? But the less-than-dirty little secret is that the campaign is a gas. Reporters follow you around, columnists seek your opinion on weighty matters, and you share the limelight in endless televised debates. For an Al Sharpton or Ron Paul, it is a platform that mere money can’t buy.
One man’s reason for skipping 2012 is refreshing. Chris Christie, the combative New Jersey governor, says flatly: “I’ve got to believe I’m ready to be president, and I don’t.” Rather than preen about whether he could win, Christie considered whether he should win. Best of all, he isn’t whining about it.