U.S.

Quora Question: Why Don't Better People Run for U.S. President?

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Otto Diefffenbach III holds up his model planes resembling Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Carlsbad, California, on September 15. Mike Blake/reuters

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Answer from Brad Porter:

I am going to be profoundly contrarian here. It is very, very easy to say “aww hell all politicians are crooks!” or “dammit I hate this candidate, but I hate their opponent more!” or “politics is dirty!” or “the system is rigged!” or whatever else. Cynicism is cheap. We spend much of our time focused, laser-like, on the flaws and controversies of everyone who enters the public sphere. It’s natural, and it’s even constructive.

So allow me a counterpoint.

You can say what you want about any one of these men—notice I will not say a word on the politics of any of them nor will I even discuss their time as president—but let me at least lay it out for you. Again, I make no comment about the value of their respective presidencies, just their resumes as candidates.

Our current president is one of the most gifted orators of the last half century, with a profoundly inspiring background whose very existence as a public figure gives hope to millions. He is an extremely intelligent and profoundly decent man, who rocketed to political success after a background in community organizing, law and academia and on the basis of an expressed vision that what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

This man was the extremely popular two-term governor of one of the nation’s most populous states—when he was re-elected in 1998 it was with the highest vote total of any governor in Texas history. He had a knack with connecting with people in a way that many politicians didn’t—he never, in the Southern way of speaking, “put on airs.” Being the son of a president and the brother of a very popular governor of another populous state, he came from a pedigree few could match. When he won in 2000, it was against a primary field that was one of the most impressive ever. And he won in large measure because he espoused a vision of the GOP that was compassionate and big tent.

This man could make a reasonable claim to being among the most intelligent individuals of the late 20th century. A Rhodes Scholar, Oxford-educated, tremendously bright lawyer, he chose to enter public service, beginning as attorney general and then as governor of Arkansas—he was 32 when he was first elected governor, the youngest in the country by far and among the youngest to ever hold the office of any state. When he was elected again in 1982 he then served in the office for 10 years straight before bursting onto the national scene.

Arguably one of the most accomplished Americans of his generation—and it was a doozy—this man joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, following Pearl Harbor, became an aviator (quite literally the youngest aviator in the entire United States Navy at the time), left the service at the end of the war, breezed through Yale in two and a half years, founded an oil company, and was a millionaire by the age of 40. He chose to become a public servant then, was elected to the United States House of Representatives, became the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, then a special envoy to China at a critical time, then became the director of the CIA. Following that he became a two-term vice president, before being elected president himself.

Raised poor, this man started out as a radio announcer, then as an actor. While his acting career was not that noteworthy, he was held in such high esteem by his peers that he was chosen to lead the Screen Actors Guild as president, twice elected during the 50s when that was arguably one of the most important unions in America. Like Obama, his “coming out” was as a convention speaker, where he showed an uncanny vision for an optimistic Republicanism. He was then elected governor of the most populous state in the union, and won re-election easily. He ran unsuccessfully for president twice, gaining tremendous respect and national exposure in the process, before finally winning the nomination and then the office. He was subsequently reelected by the largest electoral college margin in American history.

Just for the sake of comprehensiveness, let’s blow through the rest of the latter half of the 20th century in a lightning round!

Jimmy Carter: A distinguished naval officer on nuclear submarines, then peanut farmer who was elected to the Georgia state senate twice then was elected governor and then defeated the incumbent President of the United States—one of only a handful of times that had happened.

Gerald Ford: A former standout college athlete (not “I played some ball in college” but rather “like, one of the greatest college football players ever”) who had offers from the NFL but turned them down for law school, this dude became a lawyer then a congressman for 25 years, then minority leader, then vice president.

Richard Nixon: Brilliant lawyer, then representative, then senator, then vice president for eight years, and all along he was one of the most significant “party boss” types in the modern era who led the GOP back to relevance post-FDR.

Lyndon B. Johnson: For my money perhaps the most effective legislator of the 20th century, started as a teacher, became a congressional aide, then a congressman himself, then senator, then majority leader, then vice president, before taking over the presidency himself.

I could really go on. Before that you’re talking five star generals, hot shot Senators, industrialists, and on and on and on.

Heck, let’s not even look at the winners. Just the losers!

This year, the primaries included:

  • The longest serving independent in the history of the United State Congress who began his career as a civil rights activist. (Bernie Sanders)
  • A former federal prosecutor then popular two term governor. (Chris Christie)
  • Two-term governor of one of America’s largest states. (Jeb Bush)
  • A former big city mayor then two-term governor. (Martin O'Malley)
  • A two term governor of one of America’s largest states that is also the critical swing state. (John Kasich)
  • A bonafide genius who was the first Hispanic then longest-serving Solicitor General in state history, then Senator. (Ted Cruz)
  • An attorney, then speaker for the state house of representatives, than very popular young senator. (Marco Rubio)

And the winners included a successful businessman (Donald Trump) who became one of America’s enduring symbols of wealth acquisition, alongside an extremely bright attorney who became senator then secretary of state (Hillary Clinton). Trump is admittedly a bit of an outlier, but if you were looking for people with top level civil executive experience and long records of public service, well, you got ‘em.

09_21_pew_election_03 Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon, respectively, in May. The major factor in candidate support for Election 2016 is disliking the opponent, according to the Pew Research Center. Lucy Nicholson/Jim Urquhart/Reuters

You have to go a long way back before you find a dud.

So I guess my first answer to people wondering why we don’t get better people running for president is… Well hell, what did you do today? Beyond that, I think there is something we don’t often realize: Public service is a very crappy way to become rich or famous.

It’s true! If you are an extremely smart individual, and your goal is fortune, you do not give up your career on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley to go run for the open seat in AZ-2. Typically, the people who get elected to state office are people who have been paying their dues for years, organizing voters, signing people up with clipboards, schmoozing donors and on and on. You wind up spending all of your 20s and most of your 30s doing mundane work for no pay. Your peers, typically, are busy making partner or getting VC funding while you’re worrying about yard signs. It is a lousy way to get rich.

If you are an extremely vain individual, and your goal is popularity or power—public service is likewise an awful avenue. You spend most of your life in public service eating shit. Before you even sniff ballot access as a major party candidate, you have to pay your dues shadowing small-ball idiots who nevertheless you have to treat as the next JFK. And, most people who run for office… well, lose. They don’t tell you that part. Hell, even in my little above exercise, nearly all of those guys got stomped at one point of another. And most people don’t even get that far—they die on the vine trying to build name ID for a local congressional race in New Hampshire. It is a lousy way to get famous. And this is all way before we’re talking a presidential run.

The truth is a person who has dedicated their life to public service has typically done so because they believe in something. And, more to the point, the very fact that they are running for office usually means they are sacrificing something to try to make a difference. That they have paid dues, come through the ranks, offered something of themselves. It’s not for everyone! There are smarter people around—Elon Musk, I’m sure, has maybe better ideas…but would he make a better public servant? I don’t know. I actually doubt it.

But, to answer the question: Why don’t better people run for U.S. President? The answer is simply because there is not a huge incentive, if you are looking to be the smartest, or richest, or most popular person, to run for U.S. president. What you are left with, instead, are the people who are doing it in spite of the fact that it’s a bad way to be the smartest, or richest, or most popular person. What you are left with are people who run for U.S. president because they believe in something. That might not be your definition of “better people”—but maybe that has less to do with them, and more to do with us.

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