SEDUCTION

The morning after the 2008 election, The Onion did the best job of bringing some perspective to the year-long spectacle of the presidential election in "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job":

African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday…In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation's broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it.

I teach a presidency class at least once per academic year; in it I always ensure that we spend some time talking about the basic but often overlooked question of who would actually want this job. Aside from subjective benefits – prestige, attention, political power, a feeling of importance, getting to learn cool secrets, etc. – it's really not a very appealing job.

The pay is subpar compared to the alternatives available to anyone capable of being elected president. The president has no normal family life, and neither his spouse nor his children can go anywhere without heavy security. In the average month 500-1000 different individuals threaten to kill you, about 1% of whom are making an actual plan to do so. The president works 70 or 80 hours per week and is on call 24-7. Everything on TV and in the newspaper is about how terrible the president is, why everything he does is wrong, and why he has ruined the nation. In the modern era, 60% is considered an astronomically high approval rating, i.e. the best you can hope for is that only about 120,000,000 Americans will hate you and consider you an abject failure. The odds of leaving office as a "success" are virtually nil.

It's not surprising that we see people who could conceivably be competitive in a presidential election declining to run. Mike Huckabee was a nobody ex-governor in 2008 until he won the Iowa Caucuses. That success made him a legitimate contender for the presidency (although certainly not an undisputed favorite) in 2012. But it also made him a TV host to the tune of $500,000 annually for one show per week, a syndicated radio contributor for an undisclosed six-figure salary, a highly compensated public speaker, and a fixture among the select group of authors who can churn out 250 pages of empty crap every 8 months and have it sell a million copies. As Chris Wallace said in response to claims that Fox unfairly boosts certain GOP candidates who happened to be paid on-air talent, "I have a theory that in fact (Fox News makes) life so pleasant for these folks like Mike Huckabee, I'm not sure Mike Huckabee wants to go campaign. I think he loves what he's doing here at Fox."

Mike Huckabee, in short, has been seduced by the good life of the pundit class, the Beltway pros who get paid a lot to work very little – "work" in this case consisting of offering opinions that range from the obvious to the deliberately provocative to the inane. The part of him that wanted to be president for personal glory or to serve the country was gradually worn away by the allure of money and stardom. The only thing more seductive than the limelight is money, and people like Huckabee are increasingly offered both as alternatives to presidential politics.

Huckabee certainly isn't the only one. Al Gore, who could have run a very credible campaign in 2008, realized that writing books, spending time with his wife, making movies, appearing on sitcoms, and winning awards was a lot more appealing than dragging himself and his family through the mud again. Sarah Palin is a right-wing brand name par excellence, with $50,000+ speaking fees and million dollar advances on ghostwritten books. She appears before crowds of sycophants who adore her, which is probably as ego-rewarding as political power. Michelle Bachmann could get a six-figure job at any Christian right powerhouse she chooses, and Mitt Romney could hit the Board of Directors circuit without breaking a sweat.

In short, many of these people are vacillating about 2012 not only because Obama will be difficult to beat but also because there are so many private sector temptations. For Republicans in particular, with the conservatives' strong network of targeted media outlets, non-profits, and interest groups, the temptation is getting darn near overwhelming. Unless an individual has an ego that can only be satisfied by the presidency, choosing between a couple million dollars per year hosting a TV show or "writing" "books" and serving as president is no choice at all.

(PS: For a decent summary of what Huckabee's exit does to the GOP field see Chris Cillizza)

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18 Responses to “SEDUCTION”

  1. Turok Says:

    Brilliant! When Huckabee announced he would not run, my first thought was "LOL he knows no one has a chance until 2016". I did not take into account that some prestigious individuals who are already well off would rather have a few million dollars than go through all that stress. Insightful perspective.

  2. FMguru Says:

    You touch on it briefly, but one of the key downsides for running for president is that it's amazingly hard work. A serious presidential run requires giving up 18-24 months of your life, completely scrambling what family life you had, constant travel, 24/7 intrusions from the press, delivering the same speech over and over and over, and (most importantly) continually grovelling for funds. All to get a chance at the nomination and a 50/50 opportunity to end up with nothing to show for it except a national reputation as a joke and loser. Who needs it?

    I knew that Palin would never run in 2012 because her entire persona is built around grabbing the easy money. Her fundamental laziness meant she would never, ever put forth the effort, either physical or intellectual, to become a proper candidate, particularly (as you note) since she has such a cushy, renumerative gig on the gravy train. Why would she give that up to spend two years plowing through the muck of a campaign? I still expect her to feint towards running at some point, if only to boost her media profile and drive interest in her book sales and personal appearances.

    I do find the rise of non-serious candidates interesting. There have always been long-shots who get into races not expecting to win, usually to make a political point or promote some often-overlooked agenda, but the rise of celebrity candidates for whom running for president is a job in itself (Alan Keyes) or a promotional method to drive sales of infomercial crap and reality TV viewership (Trump, Gingrich) is something else. A system that has us following Donald Trump's bloviations as top political news for months at a time and allows him to drive the agenda – is it really that much better than party hacks being chosen in smoke-filled backrooms?

  3. anotherbozo Says:

    @FMguru: the pain of watching Trump waste all that media attention for weeks was worth the punchline: the Correspondents' Dinner, and ten minutes of priceless standup jokes. Icing on the cake was "the" Donald, in attendance, unamused.

  4. Middle Seaman Says:

    Despite being a tough job, the presidency is a magnet for people with huge egos, those who have a vision to accomplish and it is afrodisiac for people hungry for power. If money and laziness are such crucial motivations for politician, congress, state governorships and houses will all be rather sparsely populated.

    We know that there plenty of candidates for all positions, local, state and federal and many of them are compensated by paltry sums compared to the returns they can get out of office.

    The post may be correct in the case of Palin; she is a bum. Huckabee probably waits for 2016 to make his last run. Gore, however, seemed more than repulsed by the character assassination he went through in the hand a mind lazy bumy media.

  5. cromartie Says:

    Huckabee was finished the moment Maurice Clemons walked into that coffee shop in Seattle.

    It's interesting that the right's delusional pundit complex is making it's participants too fat and lazy to actually effect the change they pay lip service to.

    Too many people who bloviate about stooging with too few actually doing the stooging is dragging the party down. A real shame.

  6. John Says:

    Always remember the reason that Ex-Half Governor Moosehead is where she is: She abdicated her responsibility to the people of Alaska, abandoned her post as elected governor, to chase pundit money from Fox and Company after her national exposure as the blowup doll for McCain's campaign.

    If this country ever wants to claim it has anything close to a democracy running, there has to be drastic campaign reform to remove the wealth component. The US constitution lays out that ANY natural-born citizen 35 years or older is eligible for the presidency, but in the modern electoral system only the ultra-wealthy, or those with close ties to the ultra-wealthy, stand any chance whatsoever as campaigns throw double- or triple-digit MILLIONS of dollars around.

    Too bad that any attempt to make meaningful campaign reform to level the playing field for all eligible candidates will be met with screeches about "Freedomâ„¢", that being the freedom to rig elections such that only members of the elite class have any actual prospects of winning.

  7. ladiesbane Says:

    Spouses might be inhibiting the process as well. They are faced with all the downsides you mentioned, and none of the perks. Spouses also usually favor choosing higher-paying jobs that are minimally disruptive to home life and don't involve assassination attempts. It may not be a huge factor, but I think it has been growing since about the time Mrs. Clinton was first roundly abused for sarcastically declining to stay home and bake cookies, then being accused of lesbianism when she stood by her cheating husband.

  8. Blakenator Says:

    Another point to remember about the modern pundit life: there is no accountability. We have a collection of nit wits who have managed to hold on for years despite spouting constant nonsense and never getting anything right.

  9. HoosierPoli Says:

    If Palin ACTUALLY wanted to be president she wouldn't have resigned halfway through her only qualification. She wants to be Rush, not President.

  10. acer Says:

    To echo Middle Seaman, the Presidency is still the Big Dream, damn the indignities, for a certain kind of self-mythologizing egotist. Obama's always wanted it. You could tell how much HRC and McCain wanted it. Romney seems like another one of those, and he knows he's the only guy in the bummer GOP field who can theoretically take out Barry in '12.

    Gingrich and Palin are multi-platform narcissists much better suited to this new kind of post-Fairness Doctrine right-wing celebrity. Bachmann probably believes that God and her neighbor's goldendoodle are telling her to challenge the super-secret Muslim immigrant antichrist. Trump, I don't know about. This latest stunt seems to have at least temporarily damaged his Q rating. Maybe he's just a fucking dumbass.

  11. Elder Futhark Says:

    The key advantage to being President is all the gravy afterwards. Aside from all the phoney-baloney jobs you get, especially the board of directors gigs, its a good way to get your ugly and/or stupid children married into the aristocracy.

  12. buckyblue Says:

    The Fox candidate/pundits are only candidate/pundits because they ran for the presidency. Or in Palin's case, the VP. What do they have to offer if they don't have that star in their crown. Move over Mike, Timmy P has a show now.

  13. acer Says:

    @bucky:
    Interesting point. I'm sure the Huckster is all set financially, but he's not as polarizing or shameless as the clownish assholes that are Murdoch's stock in trade.

    The only reason Huckabee ever excited me is that I thought he might help bring back the career of Kevin Spacey.

  14. DS Says:

    Huckabee, Palin, Romney, bah. The real person everyone should be afraid of is Michelle Bachmann. She is the physical manifestation of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater resentment politics par excellence, a true believer of right-wing voodoo economics and a culture warrior who doesn't use abortion and gay marriage as a political wedge like Reagan or Bush, but actually believes that they are threats to American society. A white-supremacist, super-patriot, who believes in no political compromise and ramming the conservative agenda down the throats of Americans to show all the browns, Jews and Gays in New York and San Francisco that Middle America is in charge is what Republicans are clamoring for in this election, even if it means that Obama wins 400 electoral votes. She is also savvy when it comes to dealing with the lunatic nature of the modern conservative movement, has been a politician for a number of years and can deal with questioning unlike Palin. I think her personal life alone (wasn't her husband "cured" of his homosexuality?) makes her totally unelectable for 70% of Americans, but she fucking scares me. I can see her running because she actually believes that the blackity black man in the White House is trying to destroy Touchdown Jesus American principles.

  15. My Says:

    Ha!: "'writing' 'books'"…nice.

  16. cromartie Says:

    I can see her running because she actually believes that the blackity black man in the White House is trying to destroy Touchdown Jesus American principles.

    Let her. She'll get smoked in the debates and we'll be rid of these whack jobs once and for all.

  17. ladiesbane Says:

    It just occurred to me that the football-shaped overlap in the Venn diagram of punditry and politics could be owned by Newt Gingrich. He has the egomaniacal hunger for power of a modern political shark as well as the reality-free lack of accountability of a Fox pundit. He is knowledgeable about government, has a genius for propaganda, and is a shameless hypocrite. Not for a minute does he believe the bullshit he feeds the rank-and-file Republicans, but he knows what sells. He's not electable, but that won't stop him from flinging mud and causing wanton destruction and divisiveness. It's a pity he uses his powers for the forces of evil, because he could be a really valuable public servant if he didn't.

  18. A Says:

    Now that we have Citizens United, wouldn't it be nice for ____ Industries to run? (Skip the flesh & blood mouth piece.)