Catch of the Day: Ambition Is Good

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Catch goes to Paul Waldman for a terrific item about political ambition and presidents:

"I have to ask why we assume there is something morally superior about the "conviction politician" like Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, and something morally inferior about the guy who just thinks he'd like to be president and would do the job well. No matter how firm their ideology, conviction politicians are just as ambitious as people like Romney or Bill Clinton who knew they would one day run for president from the time they got to middle school."

Yes, exactly. Not only is ambition not morally suspect, in fact, the Romney/Clinton model of ideological and policy flexibility is better situated, overall, to succeed in the Oval Office than the true-believer model. Mind if I quote myself from a few years back (also in the context of the "Mittbot" and non-conviction ambition)?

Ambition is a virtue, not a flaw, in politicians. Democrats very much want Barack Obama to deeply care about re-election, because they want a Democrat in the White House in 2013-2016. Moreover, they want him to care about wielding his influence as much as possible, because otherwise events will be dictated by Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner, or General Petraeus, or some anonymous bureaucrat in the Commerce Department, or just by the random rush of events and reactions.

The idea is that ambition isn't just about getting to the White House, but also seeking to be personally powerful after getting there -- that it's the (obsessive?) quest for power that produces presidential success. I've made this point about George W. Bush. As I see it, Bush was not particularly ambitious, and thus saw nothing wrong with his Vice President and his Secretary of Defense running the show, with predictably terrible results. Why predictably terrible? Because ambitious presidents aren't going to accept the harm to themselves from catastrophic policy failure, while true believers (in the Oval Office or elsewhere) just might.

It's worth noting that the consensus choices for the three greatest American presidents -- Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt -- were all extraordinarily ambitious. None is usually classified as a true believer. Granted, there's no guarantee of success: Richard Nixon was surely a very ambitious non-ideologue, and he was a terrible president.

But overall, I'll stick with thinking of ambition first as a job requirement for all politicians and second as a plus, not a minus. And: nice catch!

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