Paul Pillar

The Campaign for a High and Frustrating Office

When Winston Churchill made his remark about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried, the positive side of what he was saying about democracy had as background the Westminster system with which he was familiar and that has served Britain fairly well. As we contrast that system with the current U.S. presidential campaign, the latter exhibits some characteristics that might have led Churchill to conclude that some of those other forms of government could stack up fairly well. One specific contrast is presented by the fact that the two leading contenders for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties, along with a third candidate who has broken into the top tier of contenders in that same party, have absolutely zero experience in public service. Such a situation would not arise in Britain, where prime ministers typically arrive at the top after a political apprenticeship that has included backbench time, responsibilities as a junior minister, and service as a senior minister or shadow minister. (The recent selection of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is an aberration, although even he has been a member of parliament for three decades. Corbyn will never become prime minister, and British commentators almost unanimously predict that his party leadership will not last long.)

The extremely long presidential campaigns in the United States are sometimes seen as a substitute for inside-government political apprenticeship, and a gauntlet that provides ample opportunity for American voters to appraise and winnow down the field of contenders. But the winnowing process is very often one that would have made Churchill either wince or laugh. One of the headlines coming out of the most recent “debate” among Republican presidential candidates—besides how much the event became a contest in who could complain most loudly about the questions and the media—was that Marco Rubio's comeback to Jeb Bush's raising of Rubio's dismal attendance record in the Senate was snappier than anything Bush said during the evening, and thus Rubio was assessed to be a “winner” of the debate and Bush a “loser.” No one has explained what this sort of appraising and vetting has to do with the qualities required to be a successful president.

This most recent part of the winnowing process is even faultier when one considers that the issue Bush was raising was not just a matter of comparing Rubio's attendance record with that of previous senators who also were campaigning for president. By his own description, Rubio is “frustrated” in the Senate; he just doesn't like doing the job any more, and that's why he essentially has checked out of it even though the citizens of Florida elected him to do the job for six years. That brings to mind a comment by an American contemporary of Churchill who rose to the top. When Harry Truman was contemplating a victory by Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, Truman said, ““He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

If Rubio were to be elected president next year and re-elected in 2020, he would still be in only his early 50s when leaving the White House. Why should we not expect that he would react to the frustrations of the presidency in some of the same ways that he has reacted to the frustrations of the Senate, while he looks forward to one of the best positions any American can hold: that of ex-president, which offers lots of prestige and financial opportunities with none of the heavy responsibilities of the president?

The U.S. presidency is a very frustrating job, even more so than in Truman's and Eisenhower's time. An apex of frustration has been reached with the current president, given the control by both houses of Congress by an opposition party determined to frustrate this president at nearly every turn and to oppose his most important domestic and foreign initiatives because they are his most important initiatives. Probably the current Republican contenders expect they would have a much different situation as long as Republican control of Congress continues into 2017. Perhaps, but they need to think about this further as they observe the obstreperous and fratricidal conduct of House Republicans, which already has cost one Speaker of the House his job.

A successful presidency has at least as much to do with how the president deals with obstructions and frustrations as with how he or she identifies and pursues lofty goals. A significant part of how we should evaluate Barack Obama's presidency, for example, will be how well or how poorly he has dealt with jingoist political pressures that have collided with prudent retrenchment overseas, and whether he has been able to fashion foreign and strategic policies that still make at least some strategic sense.

In the British system, the capacity to deal effectively with obstruction and frustration can be developed during the political apprenticeships of aspirants to high office. Those political careers also provide a basis for assessing who has or has not developed that capacity. A career with zero public service does not provide such a basis. Neither does a political campaign that gets scored in terms of zingers and who fulminates most loudly about tough questions.