10/19/2016 10:18 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2017

What Motivates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump To Run For President?

"Why do you want to be president?" Simple question, right? And not a particularly difficult one to answer for most presidential candidates throughout our nation's history. Think of any of them, even the losers, and their motivations come readily to mind. Johnson, Goldwater, Reagan, Mondale, and McGovern and further back in time, FDR, Hoover, and Truman. And Obama today. They could all tell you why they ran. Their reasons were invariably grounded in ideology, in deeply held ideas about the kind of nation America should be. Today, when we call a candidate an "ideologue" (Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, for example) we usually don't intend it as a compliment. But possessing an ideological core means not that you will do anything to win, but the opposite: that there are lines you will not cross, things you will not do, because if you crossed them and did them, you wouldn't be "you."

But what if you don't know who "you" are? What if the reason you are running for president has less to do with what you believe than with defeating your enemies, confounding those who doubted you, or proving you're a winner? What if you viewed your campaign not as a battle between competing sets of ideas, but as a game - on the level of a mega-sized sporting event - in which defeat is not merely unpalatable but unthinkable, unacceptable, and unendurable? Ideologues, for better or worse, have ideas, principles and identities. Candidates without them have only their egos to guide them.

Which brings us to this year's two most popular presidential candidates. Why do they want to be president? How would they answer that question? Could they? I doubt it. "Make America Great Again" and "Stronger Together" cannot disguise what truly motivates both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: defeating enemies, confounding doubters, and winning. They want to be president because, well, they want to be president.

Sound familiar? It should. Because both Clinton and Trump bear an unsettling resemblance to another presidential candidate unfettered by clear ideological boundaries: Richard Nixon. In The Selling of the President, 1968, Joe McGinniss observed that after over two decades on the national political scene Nixon "was still felt by his own staff to be in need of time 'to work out firmly in his own mind that vision of the nation's future that he wants to be identified with.'" Garry Wills, who plumbed Nixon's depths exhaustively for his Nixon Agonistes, viewed him as "the least 'authentic' man alive." Nixon had no ideological center, only ego - resentment, ambition, pride, and entitlement. And when faced with the greatest moral challenge of his presidency, the Watergate crisis, Nixon had no core beliefs on which to rely, no lines he would not cross. He was left only with raw survival instinct. He simply could not let his enemies win. There was no other reason to be president than to win, win, win.

So instead of coming clean about the Watergate burglary and suffering the immediate political consequences - which while harmful in the short run would in all likelihood not have affected the result of the 1972 presidential election in any appreciable way - Nixon chose to stonewall. Devoid of ideological bearings, reliant solely on a will to power for its own sake, it was all he knew how to do. Nixon, of course, paid a high price for his ideological emptiness. But we paid a higher one.

It is unlikely that a Trump or Clinton presidency will end the way Richard Nixon's did - let's hope not - but when your motivation for running for the presidency is based almost exclusively on a burning desire to beat the other side, the chances things will end badly increase exponentially. So listen for an answer to the question "Why do you want to be president?" from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton over the next few weeks. If you don't get one that's plausible, it's a bad sign. And next time you hear a presidential candidate derided as an "ideologue," don't automatically write them off. When the inevitable crisis occurs, their ideology may offer the moral compass and belief system to do the right thing - for us.