You know what I hate about Barack Obama?
He's so bright and fresh and new. So young, so idealistic, so untainted by the dirty dealings of Washington. He may or may not get bogged down in all that policy crap, but he sure will inspire us.
But wait - isn't that just what everyone loves about Obama?
Exactly. So it's not actually Obama himself that bothers me; I cheerfully concede that he may turn out to be a fantastic candidate and, for that matter, a Washington-Lincoln-FDR triple combo as president. It's the fact that everyone loves him - or rather, why many people love him so far - that drives me crazy. It's not just that he's handsome and smart and articulate and charismatic. It's that he's new. And just by being new, he can, without promising anything, promise to realize that sweet, recurrent American dream: the dream that after all these years of disillusionment, some untold chevalier is going to ride up to the Capitol on his white horse and, with a brandish of his boldness, kick Congress in its cronyism, and finally, you know, 'bring the country together' and 'get things done' - or, to channel Ross Perot, the Texas-twanged knight of 1992, 'git in there and look under the hood and switch things around and....'
Like all rescue fantasies, this one has tremendous power - and tremendous problems when it has the sore luck to hit the light of day.
For starters, it makes a ridiculous virtue out of political virginity. Only in politics is inexperience ever viewed as a selling point. With all due respect for fresh blood, imagine interviewing for any even semi-senior job, confidently informing the boss that you've never done anything like this before; don't have a very high opinion of how it's been done before; don't have many relationships with the people who have been doing it for years and with whom you will be working if you get the job; know, of course, about the big problems you'd face if hired but can't yet say exactly what you'd do about them ...but you're full of hope!
Moreover, the fantasy, like Hollywood love stories that end when the groom kisses the bride, ignores what happens after the election. Let's face it: Even Mr. Smith went to Washington. Once elected, guess whom the perfect paragon of purity, Obama or anyone else, would have to deal with to make good on any of his promises: Washington insiders. And guess what processes he would have to navigate to do so: Washington legislation, regulation, stagnation, ego inflation.
But if you're really bold and really bright and really, really, really well-intentioned, not knowing your way around that stuff can't, like, screw up your presidency, can it?
Ask Jimmy Carter. Ask the Clintons - who were, granted, never anyone's idea of squeaky clean, but did sweep in with more policy-initiative droit de seigneur than savoir-faire and paid heavily for it -- as did anyone who liked that universal-health-care idea. Most of you probably aren't speaking to George W. Bush, but ask someone to ask him whether a little first-hand knowledge of foreign policy mightn't have come in handy.
Third and worst, the rescue fantasy encourages the silly fiction that the main reason that big, serious, long-standing problems don't get solved is because nobody in power really wants to solve them.
Nonsense. Of course, there are plenty of lazy and/or stupid and/or corrupt politicians whose main interest is their own advancement while in office, and their own enrichment once out. But there are plenty who aren't like that. And even if you somehow removed all the former, and were left with a political roster comprised solely of genuine visionaries and luminaries, you'd find that, lo and behold, a lot of this stuff is actually hard. It's easy to favor free and fair trade with Africa....until you hear from the American farmer. It's a no-brainer to stand up against pork-barrel spending on outmoded military bases or propping-up flailing industries...unless you represent the people who stand to lose their jobs. It's idiotic not to favor at least some reforms in the Social Security system....until you come up against democracy in action, also known as senior citizens who will not merely clean, but gut, the clock of anyone who threatens to touch a hair on the head of "their" money.
This isn't to suggest that those choices can't be made, or worthy compromises can't be reached. But it ain't easy. And in the course of trying, it just might help to have tried before.
Just as it's always been a mistake to sanctify politicians for never having smoked this or that, I think it's a mistake to glorify politicians for never having done much, well, politicking. Since we've got approximately an eternity before the election anyway, I think we should stop searching for redeeming outsiders at least long enough to scan the horizon for a worthy insider: somebody who's tried and failed a few things a few times and been fried for it in the media; who's got some scuffmarks from the legislative process; who's won a few and lost a few and horse-traded enough to know when to hold out for the whole enchilada and when to figure that half a loaf is better than none.
Again, I'm not attacking Obama. Depending upon how his candidacy develops relative to everyone else's, I could very well end up voting for him. And, if exposed to enough of his already-fabled magic, I could end up viewing him, through dewy eyes, as RFK and JFK reborn and rolled into one. But in terms of trusting someone to know how to run the place, there's only one Kennedy brother I'd like to see evoked in the White House: Teddy.