THE UNITED STATES OF AMBITIONBy Alan Ehrenhalt
Random House, $23
Reviewed by Blair Clark
To the question "Where on earth do the politicians that now govern us come from?", Alan Ehrenhalt has a simple answer: Ambition and Professionalism.
Gone are the party bosses, business elites and amateur pols who dominated politics just a generation ago. In their place is a new breed of full-time activists whose whole life is government _ and of course the electoral politics that gets them there.
Alan Ehrenhalt, a veteran political reporter who is now executive editor of Governing (a magazine owned by the St. Petersburg Times), tells how this happened through well-told accounts of the recent political life of several cities and states, with final reflections on Congress and the national government. If this sounds dry, it is not. The book is full of sharp sketches of the characters in these political dramas (and sometimes melodramas).
You wonder how it happened that a $90-a-week 27-year-old disc jockey in Sioux Falls found himself presiding for years over South Dakota's largest city (and not doing all that badly) after he jokingly announced on the air that he would run for mayor. How come Connecticut changed in one generation from a rural-dominated, boss-ruled state to one of such anti-establishment chaos that only an independent (former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker) could be elected governor? And what about the new-style "smoke-filled room" in Alabama where the leader of a coalition of progressive teachers and able black politicians quite dictatorially set the legislative agenda after the courts at last gave blacks the vote and the lily-white business and timber oligarchs bit the dust?
Ehrenhalt, though impeccably objective, has a certain nostalgia for hierarchy and "leaders." Their qualities are hard to find in the much more open politics that followed the national upheaval over the Vietnam War. It's harder to get things done now that bosses are in eclipse. There's all that messy debate and consensus-seeking. Sometimes things just don't get done at all. Consider Congress' abdication from the budget process via the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings device for ducking responsibility for taxes and spending.
The author locates some of the trouble in the "self-nomination" of so many current politicians. Nobody chose them, no mediating process by the "interests" was involved. These young pols just picked themselves, knew how to mobilize a constituency and rang those thousands of doorbells to get elected. They have no "jobs" except elected office as lawmakers.
What they have is plenty of time to do the handshaking drudgery of campaigning. It has taken the Republicans a long time to realize that lavish money contributions are not enough and that they have to find equally eager and ambitious young people to run all the time if they're ever going to oust these mostly Democratic professional politicians. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the waspish right-winger, is the archetype of this new-breed Republican in Congress.
Ehrenhalt puzzles over the national habit of electing Republicans as presidents (five of the last six times) while leaving Congress (except for the Senate in Reagan's first four years) in Democratic hands for the last 36 years. And he notes that the Democrats control 31 state legislatures, the GOP just five (with 13 split and one nonpartisan).
None of the theories for this divided national government satisfy the author, not even the widely held one that the voters thus check an "imperial presidency." But reading between his interesting lines, one senses a basic reason _ that Republicans, like Reagan, tend to think that government is more of a problem than a solution to Americans' collective desires and needs. Anyway, in the private sector they can make more money, advance their careers faster. He quotes one frustrated old Republican office-holder, beaten by a tireless young Democratic campaigner, "He's never even had a job."
Of course he had a "job" _ it was running for office full-time and then making laws.
Ehrenhalt takes us through the recent political histories of four cities (Greenville, S.C., Utica, N.Y., Concord, Calif., and Sioux Falls, S.D.) and four states (Colorado, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Alabama). He covers the upheavals in all of them as the United States almost doubled its population in the last half-century.
The good guys have won some and lost some (not to mention the women _ especially in the Denver suburbs, where yuppy housewives can afford both the time to campaign and the low pay of governance). But the process of campaigning goes on all the time, becoming increasingly professional everywhere, and ambition is the fuel that keeps the office-holders slogging through those exhausting days and nights of doorbell-ringing.
Finally, we got Jimmy Carter as the classic "self-nominator" who got to the pinnacle of our political system and found, when he reached the White House, that he lacked those handy old-fashioned ties to other politicians and interest groups that move the wheels of government. So he was beaten by an ex-outsider who had become the standard-bearer of a faction of his party.
It was no help to the Republicans' effort to recruit good candidates at every level that Ronald Reagan constantly ridiculed and denigrated government and all its works. That is part of the answer to Ehrenhalt's puzzle _ why we constantly elect Republicans as presidents, and Democrats to make the laws they are supposed to enforce.
What we have done nationally, says Ehrenhalt in this useful book, is to take power from the old "leaders" and hand it to the "electorate," which really means to the ambitious, self-chosen, full-time campaigners. Shall we call them "public servants" or "time-servers?"
From Alan Ehrenhalt's
The United States of Ambition
The bosses and party leaders who used to pass judgment on political careers have just about all departed the scene. They are no longer a significant barrier to entry.
The real barriers are the burdens that a political career has come to impose on people who pursue it _ the burdens of time, physical effort and financial sacrifice. Politics is a profession now, not just in Congress but in many state legislatures and in countless local governments, where a casual part-time commitment used to suffice. Many people who would be happy to serve in office are unwilling to think of themselves as professionals, or to make the personal sacrifices that a full-time political career requires.
And so political office _ political power _ passes to those who want the jobs badly enough to dedicate themselves to winning and holding them.
Equality, individualism, and openness are the crucial values of American politics in the 1990s. They are the values of the participants _ the people who have helped to discredit old-fashioned hierarchical leadership, have taken advantage of the absence of that leadership to nominate themselves to office and begin immediately to govern.
The government that these politicians have generated has not always been the government that their constituents would have created had they voted on it by referendum .
Our political system, top to bottom, needs leadership, discipline, and the willingness of individuals to submerge their personal preferences for the common good. When the system fails consistently to provide these qualities, generating a politics of posturing and stalemate, we conclude that the people we have elected have let us down.
Blair Clark, a former head of CBS News and editor of The Nation, was national campaign manager for Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968.