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When politics is ambition-driven, leadership suffers

Published Oct. 2, 1991|Updated Oct. 14, 2005

Democratic presidential candidates are popping up almost daily, it seems, and the summer columns suggesting that no one would be brave enough to challenge President Bush look pretty silly in retrospect. We should have known: Ambition is the one thing that is never in short supply in our politics. That is the theme of one of the most original and entertaining studies of the current political system to appear this year, Alan Ehrenhalt's book, The United States of Ambition.

A longtime writer and editor at Congressional Quarterly, Ehrenhalt was smart enough to realize that most political analysis has been too focused on the makeup of the electorate and the mood of the voters. The assumption that the customers' demands shape the kind of government we get seems plausible. But Ehrenhalt offers an alternative, supply-side theory, centered on the character of the men and women who run for office.

Years ago, Milton Rakove wrote a wonderful book about the Chicago Democratic machine called, We Don't Want Nobody That Nobody Sent. The title came from the rebuff a ward boss gave a young man who showed up offering to work in a Chicago campaign without a letter of recommendation from his precinct captain. It captured the essence of a closed political system, in which you had to be vouched for even to get your foot in the door.

When Ehrenhalt asks, "Who sent these candidates we see nowadays?" the answer is obviously that they nominated themselves for the honor of running. That's true of every single one of the men now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Every one of them is in the race primarily because of his own ambition.

None represents a cause or constituency. None has an issue or a faction he can call his own. Each is a self-propelled political missile.

Lest this be thought simply a reflection on these Democrats, please note (as Ehrenhalt is careful to do) that George Bush was no different when he began his pursuit of the presidency back in 1979. He was an out-of-office politician who had never been elected to anything outside a Houston congressional district. But it didn't keep him _ any more than it does the current crop of Democratic challengers _ from imagining himself climbing to the top of the greasy pole.

The pleasure of Ehrenhalt's book lies in his deft demonstration that people are operating in the same uninhibited way at all levels of politics. Wandering the country, he finds fresh examples of the relentless pursuit of office everywhere.

"The skills that work in American politics at this point in history," he writes, "are those of entrepreneurship. . . . People nominate themselves. That is, they offer themselves as candidates, raise money, organize campaigns, create their own publicity and make decisions for themselves. . . . Candidates do not win because they have party support. They do not win because they have business or labor support. They win because they are motivated to set out on their own and find the votes. . . ."

In this kind of politics, traits that once were important _ experience, credentials, loyalty to the party or cause, the ability to work with others _ count for very little.

Ambition already plays too large a part in our unstructured politics. Without political parties or any other institutions to ask, "Who sent you?", credentials disappear as a criterion for political success. And government, as Ehrenhalt shows, often suffers the consequences.

Washington Post Writers Group

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