Campaign Season: Lessons From the Inside
by Charles Wheelan, Ph.D.
I took a leave from this column back in December so I could run for Congress in the special election in Illinois to replace Rahm Emanuel, who resigned to become President Obama's chief of staff.
I lost. (More precisely, I placed sixth in a field of 12 in the Democratic primary.) So now I am armed with a new perspective on the U.S. political system, having looked at it from the inside out. Like so many activities in life, there is no substitute for being the guy who is on the stage giving the speech.
I have lots of impressions, many of which are still raw thoughts. I'll focus on my major concern: At a time when we need more good people in public office than at any other since World War II, I worry that we've built an electoral process that has the opposite effect.
Being a Candidate
If you want a decent sense of what it's like to be a candidate, try the following: Get up before sunrise and spend several hours standing in the cold at a bus or train stop. Hand literature on the current economic situation to indifferent people (most wearing headphones) as they rush past you, already late for work.
Next, go back to your office and call 100 people randomly and ask them for money. (This assumes that you've already hit up your friends and family for uncomfortably large sums.) If you have a spouse and children, this would be a good time to see them, as they can help stuff envelopes for the large mailings, which will also ask for money.
In the evening, you will sit at the front of a semi-crowded school gymnasium and explain your plans to improve the schools, fix the economy, and overhaul the health care system.
The Campaign Rush
You are now running late, so you rush to a cocktail reception already in progress. You stand in front of the fireplace in the home of someone who has generously invited friends and neighbors to meet you. You will ask all of them for money, too. When you are walking out of the event, the first question to your aide will be, "How much did we raise?"
When you finally settle in front of your own television to relax at the end of the day, whatever show you watch will likely include commercials informing the general public about your major failings as a human being. (Fortunately, I did not have to suffer this last indignity, but that was mostly a function of the number of candidates and the short campaign; I was certainly prepared for it.)
Repeat all of the above every day for three months, nine months, 18 months, or whatever the election cycle requires.
"You're All Crooks!"
I draw this picture not in a bid for pity, since the campaign was pretty much what I had expected and I obviously chose that path. In fact, my race was a special election, so it was mercifully short. Instead, I draw this campaign portrait for two reasons. First, because this is what elected officials have to do. You may like your politicians; you probably don't. One of the more sadly amusing conversations I had during the campaign was on Election Day when I was calling registered voters to urge them to go to the polls. A man answered the phone, listened to my pitch, and sputtered angrily, "I'm not voting. You're all crooks!"
I said, "How can I be a crook? I don't have anything to do with the current system. I'm a professor at the University of Chicago!"
There was a pause, and then he said, "You're just not a crook yet!"
There's No Glamour
My point is that there is nothing easy or glamorous about running for office. If you think you can do better than what you've been watching in recent weeks in the House Financial Services Committee, then you should step up. Stand at the train platforms, knock on doors, answer invasive questions, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, put your life on public view, and step into the arena. Or help someone else who is doing it. Or stop complaining.
The second reason that I bring up the rigors of running is related to the first: The harder it is to do -- in terms of time, fundraising, personal disclosure, and poor pay -- the fewer quality people we should reasonably expect to do it. I'm putting my economist hat on here. Remember, the people who win these races will be paid about as much as a middle manager at an insurance company -- and a lot less at the state and local level.
Congress consists of 535 members -- 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate. Given that they run the most powerful country in the world, it's not unreasonable to hope that they should be as talented and honest as the 500 most important business people -- the CEOs of the Fortune 500, who now earn an average of over $15 million a year. As a precise point of reference, the salary for a U.S. senator -- the more esteemed branch of the two -- is about $170,000 a year.
Key Questions to Answer
And CEOs get a lot more privacy than political candidates. Are you a fundamentally decent, honest person? If the answer is yes, then proceed to the following questions, all of which potential candidates routinely have to answer and potential CEOs generally don't. (My answers are in parentheses.)
1. Will your tax returns for the past 10 years withstand public scrutiny? (I think so.)
2. Have you ever hired an illegal immigrant? (I don't think so.)
3. Have you ever experimented with illegal drugs? (Yes.)
4. Do you pay Social Security taxes on nannies and babysitters? (Yes.)
5. Do you have a divorce record that you'd prefer not to have unsealed and published? (No.)
6. Do you want your children, young or adult, in the public eye? (They don't seem to mind.)
7. Or the catch-all: Have you EVER done anything in the 20, 30, or 40 years of your adult life that you would prefer not to have your friends, neighbors, and parents read about in the ‘New York Times'? (Yes.)
Encouraged and Discouraged
I emerged from this race both encouraged and discouraged. I'm encouraged because, for all the craziness of the process, I like the guy who won. (Candidates get to know other candidates pretty well.) Good people run and win, despite everything I've just described.
But the process also attracts nuts, profiteers, and narcissists. My former governor here in Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was indicted on 19 corruption charges. Am I surprised that someone like Rod Blagojevich would be attracted to political life? Not particularly.
The bottom line is that, if we want to change the people in Washington (or Springfield or Austin or Sacramento) we ought to think much more about what it takes to get there.
The best aphorism to describe a market economy is, "You get what you pay for." The political equivalent should be, "If you're not willing to do what it takes to get elected, why should anyone else?"
Source: Yahoo Finance