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.