There is no better testament to the marketing prowess of Herman Cain than that he gets applause when he tells audiences he’s not a politician — in the course of seeking their votes for the highest political office in the land.
Mitt Romney plays a version of the same card, arguing that “career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don’t know how to get us out.”
If Cain and Romney think so poorly of politics as a vocation, they could easily save themselves from any further taint. They could drop their arduous schedules, their fundraising pleas, their very public roles that open them up to ridicule and attack, and return to comfortable lives that would be welcomed by the vast majority of Americans who don’t thirst after political distinction.
Of course, neither will fold up shop until it becomes impossible to go on, or he succeeds. They don’t have the courage of what they want us to believe are their anti-politician convictions.
Cain’s status as a non-officeholder is entirely an accident of the poor judgment of Republican primary voters in his state of Georgia. He ran for the nomination to the U.S. Senate in 2004. He lost. Had he won, he might well be in his seventh year and second term in the Senate, where politicians go to live out their days blissfully free of any serious responsibilities. Even politicians find the Senate stifling and unproductive, so it’s an odd place for Herman Cain — man of action and scourge of the politician — to have wanted to land.
Romney avoided becoming a career politician by a similar route. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 and lost, ran for governor of the state in 2002 and served one term before setting his sights on higher office, and ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 and lost. He’s been running for president ever since. All in all, he’s made a pretty good political career out of not being a career politician.
The business experience of a Cain or a Romney is enriching, no doubt. They are more impressive for it. But what will be more relevant if Romney becomes president, his time as management consultant or his time as governor of Massachusetts? Romney was a flawed candidate in 2008 and — by most accounts — is a better candidate now. That has everything to do with having acquired more political experience by passing through the fire of running for president once before.
Distaste with the political establishment shouldn’t become distaste for the act of officeholding. Consider the figures the Tea Party admires most. The tea-party standard-bearer Jim DeMint is a former three-term congressman and is now in his second term as a senator from South Carolina. The rising star Marco Rubio spent about ten years in the Florida legislature and served as speaker of the Florida house before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2010. If business experience were all important, the successful former Goldman Sachs executive Jon Corzine would have been a blessing to New Jersey as governor, and his politico successor — former freeholder, candidate for the legislature, and U.S. attorney Chris Christie — a flat failure.
Amid the slings of outrageous fortune, the politician learns how to inspire and persuade, how to avoid unnecessary minefields and pick his fights, when to accommodate his opponents and when to confront them, how to build a coalition and keep it together. A businessman might have similar challenges, but they aren’t played out in the public arena in the context of a balky, democratic political system that rarely moves on the basis of one man’s orders.
And the businessman’s work doesn’t depend on a philosophical commitment to a set of ideas. The best politicians, like the non-businessman Ronald Reagan, translate their principles into reality in a way that rises to statesmanship. It’s not important not to be a politician; it’s important to be a really good one.