Elections

Democrats Should Not Even Dream About President Beyoncé

A proposal to elevate electability over governing ability is misguided and dangerous for the party.

Democrats must value governing over winning.

Photographer: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Jeet Heer at the New Republic argues that "Perhaps it’s time, then, for Democrats to take a page out of the Republican playbook and put a celebrity up for national office."

We expect losing parties to grasp at straws and seek magic formulas. But this one isn't just bad; it's dangerous. 

To begin with, it's not at all clear that Heer's two examples of celebrity presidential victories -- Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump -- really demonstrate any advantages for Hollywood-style politicians. Reagan did defeat Jimmy Carter handily, but Carter was massively unpopular; there's no particular reason to believe that Reagan's nomination opponents such as Howard Baker or Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush would have done any worse. 

And Trump? He may be a celebrity, but it sure hasn't made him very popular. 1 Indeed, he polled badly throughout the fall campaign and, of course, received almost 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. If anything, Trump did somewhat worse than "fundamentals" based projections suggested given the state of the economy.

More broadly, Heer makes much of the idea of "charisma." But while it's easy to call folks such as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton "drab" and "dowdy," it's worth noting that each of them won a nomination by winning primary elections in which presumably voters found them more appealing than their rivals. Indeed, it's quite possible that winning creates charisma, rather than charisma helping candidates win. 

It turns out that folks such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush were said to have charisma when they were riding high, although that trait disappeared when their presidencies collapsed. I have no doubt that Trump will have charisma if his approval ratings rise, while if he winds up as unpopular as George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter then people will re-interpret that trait as something negative, some sort of unusually strong repulsiveness. 

The main reason Democrats should ignore calls to nominate Beyonce or some other pop star, however, is that healthy parties care about more than just winning the next election. They care about governing. They care about implementing the party's policy agenda, because that's the reason many party actors got involved in politics in the first place. And they care about doing a good job administering the nuts and bolts business of the nation, both because most of them are patriots who care about their country and because parties which (say) ruin the economy or lose wars are rapidly punished for it by voters. After all, parties only get so many chances to implement the things they care about -- they need to be ready to take advantage of them. 

That means the best plan for political parties is to run someone who would be constrained by the party, and who would actually be good at the job. Celebrities fail both tests.

Yes, Democrats could make sure that a Matt Damon or a Bruce Springsteen was a committed ideological supporter, which is more than Republicans have done in the case of Donald Trump. But nevertheless they could never be certain that a celebrity president would really do what they wanted, because anyone making a leap straight from Hollywood (or E Street!) to Pennsylvania Avenue would be less constrained by all the intraparty bargains that develop over the years. It's hard enough to do that with normal politicians; anyone with a separate base outside of politics altogether is going to be that much more independent of the party. 

And, yes, competence counts, both in terms of passing party priorities and in winning re-election. It's no guarantee. Political scientists cannot predict who will or won't be good at the job -- but I think there's a pretty broad consensus that the nation (and the party) is better off with someone who has demonstrated political and governing skills. And as far as the electoral side goes, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were reasonably good at the job but Democrats still lost the presidency after eight years while suffering plenty of down-ballot losses. Still, I think most political scientists would say there's at least a loose positive relationship between mastering the job and electoral effects -- that is, holding everything else equal, someone good at presidenting will tend to produce better result for his or her party. 2

Which gets to why this kind of proposal is dangerous, and not just misguided. There's always going to be a tendency within out-parties to elevate electability over everything else. That can very healthy: It helps prevent parties from becoming ideological outliers, instead focusing on what actual voters want. But it can also be taken too far, producing parties which only care about winning elections at all costs, regardless of ability to govern. 

Republicans are about to find out what happens to a party ill-equipped to govern -- just as they did the last time they won unified control over government in 2002-2006. It's not a model Democrats would be wise to emulate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Trump's celebrity might have helped him win the nomination, but then again it's not clear it mattered more than his ability to find issue positions (or at least slogans) which resonated with primary voters, or perhaps his willingness to be outrageous on cue for the news media. 

  2. I'm sure plenty of celebrities have the raw talent to be good at politics. But the presidency is the wrong place to start. Ronald Reagan, after all, didn't campaign for the White House as a celebrity; he had completed two terms as governor of the largest state of the Union. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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