Is Politics a Profession?

I'd love to be a pilot, in the cockpit of a 747, soaring across the Atlantic at 37,000 feet. I have no experience flying airplanes, mind you, though I was a weather forecaster once. But I would gladly pay for a chance to take the stick on a commercial flight. Would you fly with me?

I could ask the same question about a number of other occupations I've fantasized about -- defense lawyer (ah, Atticus Finch), nuclear power plant operator, architect. As with piloting that 747, your answer should be "hell no!"

Why, then, do we think someone can be president with no training or experience in politics? Indeed, the lack of both seems to many voters a plus. Yet the president must work with Congress and the courts, run a civilian workforce of millions, manage a budget of trillions, and command an arsenal that could end civilization, in a divided country and world. Does such responsibility not call for some special, political expertise?

The "citizen soldier" and the "citizen politician" have a celebrated place in our history. That may explain our belief that, in serving one's country, professionalism can be learned on the job. We like to recall that the American Revolution was won by the Minuteman, who took his musket from above the hearth and ran off to defeat the British. The reality is that George Washington complained incessantly about the unreliable militia. The war was won only when we got help from the far more professional French army and navy and turned the Continental Army into a trained fighting force.

Similarly, we harbor the myth that the United States was founded by men who left the farm for Philadelphia, where they declared independence, crafted the Constitution, and returned home. Yet the great majority of the Framers had extensive experience in colonial legislatures, as lawyers, and in various other civic posts in their states and communities. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," served in the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, the Confederation Congress and studied ancient and modern government for years before trying to craft a plan for the new American nation. He co-authored the Federalist Papers to explain the new Constitution, was elected to the first Congress, and served as Secretary of State -- all before becoming president.

Admittedly, professional experience in politics is no guarantee of presidential performance, but lack of it should not be such a desirable criterion. So what, then, does professionalism in politics require? Arguably, here are a few components of competence for would-be presidents.

A president must understand the Constitution, its pre-history, and the values at its core. This requires not just picking passages to buttress arguments but knowing, for example, how the federalist and anti-federalist tensions that nearly prevented ratification continue today. It demands understanding that the Framers worried a lot about tyranny of the majority. As Jefferson put it in his First Inaugural, "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression." A new president who thinks that the mandate to govern includes the ability to ignore the concerns of those who lost misses the meaning of republican government.

A president should be able to think and act strategically, both domestically and internationally. This demands the capability to understand social, economic, and political systems and their inter-relationships. It requires a deep thirst for knowledge of world as well as American history, the ability to handle cognitive complexity, the capacity to think long-term, and the skill to take short-term actions that move toward strategic goals.

A president must know how to use power to assemble governing coalitions. Promises to "work across the aisle" are useless without the ability to listen, compromise, devise political strategy, and marshal support. Our disdain for the "political class" notwithstanding, a president has to be a political animal.

A president should be able to lead a complex bureaucracy. This requires understanding how large organizations work, what leads to failure, and how to select those leaders who will do the daily work of running government. It requires ensuring that communication and dissent flow upward. When they do not, a president -- and a nation -- get blindsided. It demands the ability to turn campaign sound bites into realistic ideas, ideas into policies, policies into programs, and to execute those programs well. Ideology may propel a campaign but runs out of steam quickly in the real world.

Such capabilities seem seldom examined or demanded during election campaigns. This may come from two misconceptions. The first is that people who are political novices can fix the very political system they condemn. That is like expecting a plumber to redesign a highway interchange. The second is that good campaigners will make good presidents, though the skills required to win are a small subset of those required to govern.

The American political system has serious problems, but it is not broken. The inability to get things done is a direct result of the design of our Constitution, crafted to make acting without widespread popular and political support next to impossible. If we cannot move forward, it is because there are systemic problems that need to be addressed and, in part, because presidents have lacked both the understanding and the political skills to do so. Putting political neophytes in the White House may be appealing, but the results can be appalling. We don't hand over the controls of jetliners to just anyone. Nor should we hand over the controls of the presidency to political beginners.