America Was Founded by Career Politicians

If you’re running for political office, heaven help you if you imply you know what you’re doing.

Voters cry for “outsiders,” fearing with some reason that political office, like the One Ring, corrupts those who wield it. Long spells in office can contribute to indolence, cynicism, or arrogance; then again, so can rotten personalities. Voters fear (story of the year in that phrase) that electoral immunity will shield representatives from the desires and needs of those that they represent. The Iron Throne is uncomfortable, as it should be.

Yet in fetishizing political novices, we run the risk of hiring officials without the knowledge or skills necessary to do their job. Americans loathe the chummy give-and-take it takes to pass legislation almost as much as they loathe strident, newbish do-nothings. The frustration inaction generates only feeds voters’ anger, deepening the problem.

This makes it especially upsetting when those who have used this frustration to catapult themselves to high office utilize the meme long after it’s appropriate. David Perdue synthesized high name ID, an impressive ability to self-fund, and a real urge by the electorate to burn-it-all-down to win a surprising victory in the Senate primary and a Senate seat.

It’s no secret that I supported the other guy, but I hope Senator Perdue enjoys enormous success. He’s right on the issues and has kept his head down to pass what legislation he can. He represents all of us now. But as a United States Senator, he no longer has any legitimate claim to “outsider.”

In this, as in all things, conservatives look to the Founders for guidance. This country was founded by men of genius who constructed the most resilient and liberating political structure ever devised. Even their personal and political flaws, of which there were many, were undone by the dignity of their ideas. Dr. King used Thomas Jefferson’s words to overcome Thomas Jefferson’s world.

Every one of the Founders was a career politician.

George Washington, demigod avatar of American integrity, first ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses at age 23. He lost (imagine!), but the young French and Indian War hero won a seat in 1758 at the age of 26, which he held until the Revolution. He spent 39 years jumping between political office and military duties at a time when the elite routinely jumped between the two. (After his defeat at Yorktown, General Cornwallis’s next jobs were ambassador to Prussia and Governor of Ireland.) In his only break from government service, General Washington organized what became the Constitutional Convention.

James Madison, Father of the Constitution, organized a patriotic militia before winning office to Virginia’s state legislature at the age of 25. In the interregnum between 1783 and the Constitutional Convention, he served as a Representative under the Articles of Confederation, seeing firsthand the sclerosis he hoped a new Constitution would dispel. He went on to serve as Representative, Secretary of State, and President before retiring at the age of 66.

The laurels continue. John Adams began his career in 1774 and continued it through 1801, though he was miffed he couldn’t go on until 1805. Alexander Hamilton became involved in American politics practically the moment he got off a boat in New York; though a sex scandal ruined his electoral chances, he arguably ran the government during both the Washington and Adams administrations. He died for influencing a presidential election.

The man who co-authored The Federalist with Madison and Hamilton, John Jay, spent 27 years in public service. From 1774-1801, he managed to serve as President of the Continental Congress, Minister to Spain, proto-Secretary of State, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, before ending his career with a leisurely term as Governor of New York, during which he abolished slavery in the Empire State.

Thomas Jefferson won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. His state and his country would benefit from his brilliance for the next 40 years, nearly without interruption.

Each of these men made public service the purpose of their lives. From a young age, they studied philosophy and history to merit the leadership positions they coveted and expected. At the Second Continental Congress in 1776, Thomas Jefferson was the youngest delegate at 33 years old. >He utilized what he knew from his political education (John Locke) and his political experience (George Mason) to declare exactly which truths the Founders held self-evident. And that was only the beginning of his political career.

Indeed, in Federalist 62 James Madison noted a “defect to be supplied by a senate lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation.” Though excerpts from this essay have been used by some to froth against incumbency as a concept, Madison spends much of it fretting about “mutability” in government. Wise and just systems require “some stable institution in the government.”

The Georgia Republican Party has seen the benefits of experience. In 2002, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction won an unlikely victory, a victory doubtless aided by the 20 odd years the candidate previously spent on the government payroll. Our senior senator, “the hardest working man in DC”, has held elected office for 37 of the last 39 years.

All of this is to say that politics is not vile. It becomes vile when government is not comprised by men and women of integrity, vision, and understanding. It becomes vile when consultants whip up anger at the concept of government and equate previous success with personal failings. It becomes vile when members of the most distinguished body in the world must forswear that very institution to retain legitimacy.

In this, as in all matters, conservatives should look to the Founders for guidance. They burned with passion for their beliefs, tempered with the wisdom of their experience. They expected a great deal from the nation’s leaders, and demanded a long record to prove it. Vote like the Founders. Vote for career politicians with wisdom and character.  

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bethebalanceDave BearseThe Eiger (aka the NEOCON Hack)Jon RichardsWill Durant Recent comment authors
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Raleigh
Raleigh

Good history lesson. The problem is outlined in this statement “Each of these men made public service the purpose of their lives.” When the word “public” changes to “private” or “special interest”, which is all too easy, is when they lose their way.

Ellynn
Ellynn

If it were not for private and special interest, New York would still be the capital of the United States, Virginia would have had less power due to the census counting what was then ruled as property as 3/4 of a person to increase their house membership, and Chicago would still be part of the original New York territory claim of Wisconsin instead of being handed over to Connecticut’s claim to Illinois. Whiskey was not tariffed as it was in England because of the number of founding fathers who owned distilleries. The press was give its power because it was… Read more »

Jon Richards
Jon Richards

Your post reminds me of this 2010 essay by Kevin Williamson written in the form of a letter to a new congressman. A taste:

When you said in your hearing that you wanted to enact common sense reforms to protect the public interest, what I heard was this: “I want to regulate.” When you said “I want to reduce the red tape,” what I heard was, “I want different tape in a different shade of cerise or persimmon or coquelicot.” That is what it’s really about, even though Washington, D.C., is full of people denouncing all the damned regulations coming out of Washington, D.C.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

The population of the US then was about 3.7 million compared to today’s metro Atlanta with 6.2 million. And it was more a league of states that became a nation in 1865. Then we began to try to control way more at the Federal level than we could ever manage effectively.

Ginny
Ginny

Huzzah!

Conservatistim is truly (to use a common buzzword these days) scaleable. Therein lies the beauty of the design. But it’s a tough road, considering how the nation has strayed. Many are losing the stomach for it.

Andrew C. Pope
Andrew C. Pope

So Sen. Perdue doesn’t like “career politicians”? Someone save this tweet when he runs for re-election.

Elliot3
Elliot3

G Washington did not organize the Constitutional Convention. He only went reluctantly, as your citation says. I would agree we had some very talented politicians, but politics for most was not their career, ie primary source of income. Hence, they do not fit the same label of career politician.

Baker
Baker

I do hate lawyers (my best friend is a lawyer, so is my father-in-law. Not all lawyers are scum-sucking bureaucrats…but many) and wish there were more occupations represented. I agree with Perdue in that ideally your entire life shouldn’t be spent in Washington as a Rep or Sen…*Joe Biden, even Paul Ryan who I like. This is really excellent though. “It becomes vile when government is not comprised by men and women of integrity, vision, and understanding. It becomes vile when consultants whip up anger at the concept of government and equate previous success with personal failings. It becomes vile… Read more »

xdog
xdog

I was struck by Rubin’s column too. Where has she been hiding that attitude all these years?

A good example of the intellectual disconnect she talks about is from the PPP poll Jessica linked to in the MRs which finds 64 percent of gopers think unemployment has increased and 57 percent believe the stock market has gone down since Obama took office. You can blame those people for being ignorant but the real blame should go to those who work so hard to keep them ignorant.

FreeDuck
FreeDuck

+1

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

“how do you run an institution if you spend decades howling how it is all awful and anyone in it is awful”

by nominating and electing Trump

blakeage80
blakeage80

I read the column and came away with the feeling that her definition of Conservative is relative to the current times. If there is no absolute, anchor definition then the meaning will always be drifting, rendering the word (and associated movement) meaningless. There must be concrete, unchanging ideals that Conservatives see as the ultimate goal. Conservatives have to keep talking about these ideals even as they recognize they can’t have it all at once. Her article made it sound like the ultimate goal is achieving a majority opinion regardless of what that is. The other issue is the ‘ideal’ conservative… Read more »

Will Durant
Will Durant

“Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” — William F. Buckley National Review 29JUN04

blakeage80
blakeage80

Yes, especially in regard to how long we lock up people caught with weed. He isn’t suggesting in his opening paragraph that any value is negotiable. ‘Weed is bad’ is a lazy statement. ‘The recreational use of mind altering drugs is harmful to both self and society’ is less so. If principles are defined and adhered to, then it takes a great deal of intellect to continually defend them in an ever changing world.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

Great column by Rubin. Two issues: The challenge for Republicans is twofold: Stop a “pathological liar,” an amoral man, from attaining the White House. “The challenge for Republicans is twofold: Stop a “pathological liar,” an amoral man, from attaining the White House” That applies equally to the Democrats with a pathological liar and amoral, sociopath woman trying to attain the White House. For a rare time in our history our future shifts to the electoral college to reject Trump and Clinton. I would vote for the devil before Clinton but recent promises by Trump make me think he will send… Read more »

IrishPat
IrishPat

Political office is the only professional where lately experience is a negative. Thankfully we don’t apply the same standards to brain surgeons, plumbers or auto mechanics.

Ellynn
Ellynn

Or engineers, architects, or airline pilots.

Jack Fitz
Jack Fitz

Committee chairs and assignments are typically driven via experience as well. So whenever anyone derides the “career politician” and hoists the next best thing, don’t complain when your state isn’t represented on Appropriations or Ways & Means.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

Experience or time in office ? The current state of politics begs for term limits for the elected. Career bureaucrats don’t bother me as much as incompetent elected leaders that can’t lead their troops.

Jack Fitz
Jack Fitz

Time in office, for sure. There are absolutely plenty of lackluster legislators at the top of the pecking order, but Mississippi was smart (can’t believe I actually just typed that) to keep Thad Cochran back in 2014 versus opting for the trope candidate that says “Washington is broken, too many career politicians, growing national debt, etc….”

The Eiger
The Eiger

People often confuse the difference in corrupt and experienced. You can be a first term congressman and be corrupt or just plain stupid. See Paul Broun, Aaron Shock. There are also members of congress who have been in congress 10 plus years who are good and working hard. You only hear about the bad ones.

bethebalance
bethebalance

The spirit of true public service rings true when elected officials do not personally profit from their positions. I think, historically, some founding fathers gave their own personal money to the government, thereby making public service a financial loss for them. While I doubt we’ll ever see that again, I think the rage against the machine is the logical result of when the service provided, and the appurtenant spirit of service, feels less than the compensation received, including perks. I don’t sense the correlation of rage with number of years in office, because then incumbents would be outed every election.